"Did the two of you go to buy vegetable seeds and plant the vegetables yourselves? We've been waiting for a year already!" Zhang Meizhen went on a tirade the moment she opened the door. She reached a hand out and knocked on the Spring Festival couplet on the door frame. "See this Spring Festival couplet? Do you know why the red colour has faded? Because this is from last year!"
"Calm down, calm down, Meizhen-jie. If you don't let us go in, 'last year' will turn to 'two years ago,'" Gan Qing said.
"You can go on a date any time you want, must you have your date while buying groceries when there's a whole bunch of starving people crying for food? Where's your conscience? Shameless couple!"
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
His movements involuntarily turned awkward.
"Line your stomach with some snacks first." As though nothing had happened, Gan Qing took out a chocolate bar from the shopping bags to pacify Zhang Meizhen. Her breathing steady and her face not blushing, she said, "Why do you always pull me in when you're teasing Little Master Yu? As an innocent bystander, I feel very stressed."
"I'm the innocent bystander here. Who was the one dawdling and taking her own sweet time?" Yu Lanchuan's eyes sank a little and he had nothing nice to say. He turned towards Zhang Meizhen. "Meizhen...jie, eating high-sugar snacks before meals may easily disrupt your insulin production. She does not have good intentions, she wants to turn you into a beautiful round ball."
Zhang Meizhen was holding a chocolate bar with a bite taken out of it. "..."
These little brats!
This year, for the sake of maintaining the air quality, there was once again a prohibition on setting off fireworks and firecrackers within the city district of Yanning. Yang Yifan had gotten balloons and a bicycle pump from somewhere and hung balloons of all sizes in the enclosed balcony. She taught Han Zhou and Liu Zhongqi to throw a special type of small darts at them. Some of the balloons were filled with confetti and some with candy. The sound of balloons popping and the gremlin kids exclaiming noisily filled the balcony. The destructive power was even greater than fireworks and firecrackers.
Han Dongsheng rubbed his ears and said to Old Master Yang, "Those old uncles and old aunties are asking when you will be starting your classes. They want to learn staff techniques from you."
"I'm lacking in talent and knowledge, I can't teach them." Old Master Yang sighed. "These old brothers and sisters of mine are already so old. Their bodies have problems everywhere and they wouldn't even know what they are if they didn't get a proper check-up at the hospital. How could I dare to casually start a class and teach them as I like… Furthermore, just you look. I can't even teach my own descendant properly."
"The real experts use the strength in their fingers but most people don't have that much strength in their smaller muscles so they still need to use the strength in their wrist." On the balcony, President Yang was like the head honcho giving the underage kids a serious demonstration. "People usually use their most nimble fingers to hold the dart so that the dart can be held steady and can also be thrown out. Your wrist must curve as little as possible, just like this…"
Before the worshipful and nervous gaze of the teenager and the child, President Yang sent the dart flying with a swoosh. Her hand movement looked extremely cool but the gap between the dart's landing point and the target was a little large—she hit the window. The window steadfastly endured this disaster from nowhere, then angrily bounced the dart back. Yan Hao heard the wind whistling behind his head and quickly shrank his neck back. The little dart brushed past his bird's nest hair and fell into Han Dongsheng's tea cup, splashing Han Dongsheng with a faceful of Dong Ding oolong tea.
Yang Yifan dropped her pose as though nothing had happened. "...this is what happens when your wrist curves too much."
Han Zhou, the boy prepared to be a winner in life, saw that the expressions on the faces of the adults did not look good and immediately shouldered the blame for this beautiful sister. "I'm sorry, Daddy. I won't be naughty anymore."
Yang Yifan patted Han Zhou's head, then shot a chilly look at Liu Zhongqi who was delighting in someone else's mess. "There is a reason why some young friends of ours are what we call 'solo since the mother's womb' ."
Old Master Yang said in great agitation, "Each generation is worse than the last."
Zhang Meizhen jutted her chin towards the kitchen. "There are also some who live up to the might of their names."
In the kitchen, Gan Qing held a block of lactone tofu in her right hand and a cleaver in her left hand, her eyes watching Yu Lanchuan add seasonings to the wok. "Put less salt, I've tasted the sauce just now, the saltiness… Enough, enough!"
In Old Master Yang's kitchen, the stove and the kitchen counter were in different places. As Qan Qing spoke, her eyes were on the wok on the stove and she had to twist the entire upper half of her body over. Yet, the cleaver in her hand never stopped moving. The sight was enough to make anyone nervous.
"Nonsense, I know how much salt to add!" Yu Lanchuan retorted impatiently. "Watch your own chicken claws, stop showing off. We don't want to eat red braised fingertips… What the hell are you cutting, your technique failed, didn't it?"
Lactone tofu was soft in the first place. Gan Qing had chopped at it randomly without a care, cutting the tofu until it resembled a lump of mud.
"Are we making jiaozi with tofu filling today?" Yu Lanchuan said mockingly.
Gan Qing didn't trade barbs with him. The thudding of the cleaver hitting the chopping board stopped. She gathered the "tofu filling" on the chopping board and dropped it into the soup pot that was filled with liquid. Then, she gave it a light stir with a chopstick. The "tofu filling" swiftly expanded, strands as fine as hair unfolding to float about in the water.
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
"Nope," Gan Qing said, calm and composed. "I'm making a soup that's easy on the digestion."
With that, she washed the cleaver under running water, then tore off a paper towel to wipe it dry. She drew her hand back and threw, and the cleaver flew back to the knife rack three steps away.
"Her knife skills are the real thing," Zhang Meizhen praised.
Gan Qing went up to the wok and took a peek. She turned off the fire. Quick as lightning, without waiting for Yu Lanchuan to complain about her meddling, she grabbed a pinch of either dried basil or thyme and threw it in.
"Hey!" Yu Lanchuan couldn't stop her in time. "This is red braised meat, not curry chicken! Did you ask for permission before randomly making fusion food?"
"I know, I know," Gan Qing swaggered to the side and washed her hands. "This is the latest revised version, I haven't applied to get it copyrighted yet. I'm letting you benefit from it for free."
Zhang Meizhen muttered, "...It's just that she doesn't follow the rules when seasoning the food."
No wonder Tianyi Crayfish's kitchen didn't want her!
Usually, Gan Qing only made a couple of everyday dishes and there weren't enough ingredients for her to unleash her abilities so she could still be considered to follow the rules. For the New Year's Eve dinner, there were many dishes and many ingredients, giving her the chance to let loose. For the sake of everyone's safety, Yu Lanchuan had no choice but to hover by the wok and keep a strict watch for enemy forces, his hands wielding the soup ladle, spatula and other implements as weapons, ready at every second to smack away her sneaky claws.
Old Master Zhou himself could not get used to sitting still and watching other people do the work. Initially, he poked his head into the kitchen and wanted to help. In the end, he watched the heated combat full of the glint and flash of cold steel with wide eyes and an opened mouth, and slipped away again, sticking close to the wall.
This chaotic New Year's Eve feast was finally put on the table. The alliance leader and the little demoness had exchanged over 800 moves with both sides winning some and losing some. Hence , both the normal dishes and the "improved" dishes shared equal limelight.
Old Master Yang had the sofa in the living room moved to the side and put up the biggest dining table in his home. There was even a rotating tray on top. He filled the cups with wine and let out a long, deep sigh.
All those years back, when the fame of the Five Supremes reached every corner of the land, he was the youngest among them. When he was with those brothers of his who had achieved fame much earlier and were legendary figures, he was like a follower who was just there to make up the numbers. They didn't even allow him to drink too much wine.
In a flash, a few decades of spring and autumn passed in flickers of light and shadow. When he looked around him, he realised that the ones left by his side now were the younger generation and he had become the first one at the table to raise his cup and lift his chopsticks.
"This year…" Old Yang paused, a little uncertain from where to start talking. In the end, he gathered everything into three simple words. "...was not easy."
Maybe his tone was too complicated. Once he spoke those words, all the older people at the table fell into silence.
After a while, Old Mr. Zhou finally said, "Every year is not an easy year. Otherwise, why would we call it the 'passing' of a year?"
Charging through road after road, passing through trial after trial. No save points, no redo.
When they reached the point where time was past and scenery changed, when it was too late for their many regrets, only then would they have the chance to look back and review their journey, and then suddenly come to the realisation...
It turned out that many of the times when they had thought themselves as the lowest point of their lives, they had actually only started to step into a deep pitfall.
It turned out that many of the times when they had thought themselves on the brink of flying on the wings of success, they had actually just jumped lightly when they arrived at the peak of their lives, and would very quickly fall back to the ground and continue rolling down the slope.
Old Yang knocked his wine cup against the rotating tray on the round table a few times, and said his good wishes. "May everyone stay safe and sound next year."
His heart weary, Alliance Leader Yu added a line. "Obey the law and don't cause trouble."
Zhang Meizhen thought for a while. "Enjoy each day as it comes?"
Han Dongsheng said, "Be thankful for what you have."
Yang Yifan said, "One must have dreams. For example, turn rich overnight and take over Lane Crawford."
Yan Hao practised saying "Happy New Year" in his heart a few times but when it was his turn, he was still unable to manage more than one thing at a time and failed to perform. He clinked his wine cup in a fluster, and forgot to say the words he had spent a long time rehearsing.
Fortunately, he was not the only one who did not speak. Gan Qing was also silent. She knocked her wine cup lightly against the rotating tray and drained it in one gulp. Holding the cup between two fingers, she showed them the bottom—she had drunk first as a sign of respect.
From outside the window, the sudden, dominating sound of firecrackers could be heard. There were still people with no self-awareness breaking the law. A police car appeared out of nowhere and rushed over to the source of the sound. As a bachelor, Comrade Yu Yan for whom nothing had gone right for more than half a year frequently had to "put on a show" during festivals and holidays. He might be right inside that busy and exasperated-sounding police car, on night shift.
The over forty hours long "background noise" Spring Festival Gala was airing. The young people's phones were starting to set off mini earthquakes here and there. Yang Yifan's fingers were flying busily but at the same time, she still fought ferociously against the tide again and again, dragging the conversation topic at the dining table back from where it was sliding towards "Quickly get married, quickly get a child, quickly get a second child."
The little darts were too dangerous and had been kept away by Zhou Beibei. In a rare occasion, Gan Qing displayed her capabilities and demonstrated to the gremlin kids the correct way to pop the balloons. She tied a knitting needle to the clothes drying rack and raised it to poke the balloons one by one. The milk candies wrapped in gold foil rained down all over the floor.
Amidst the popping sounds, Liu Zhongqi was fuming. "You guys are just refusing to teach me martial arts! I was only ten marks short of 120 in my end-of-term exams!"
Yu Lanchuan in the house and Gan Qing on the balcony said in unison, "Do you know how many people are separated by a single mark in the gaokao?"
Liu Zhongqi, "..."
And so, the conversation in the living room shifted from children's education to graduating and job-hunting, and then continued on to the abyss that was the national economy and the welfare of the people. First, the two little friends were put on public trial and their end-of-term exam results taken out for everyone to analyse. After that, the armchair critic adults were also not spared. The exam results for adults were a lot simpler. There were only two subjects—one was "Marriage and Family," the other "Career Success and House Ownership." Regrettably, among these young sprouts of the martial arts community, not a single one passed.
As an "underperforming student" who did not pass a single subject, Yan Hao suffered through the older generation's lecturing, each of them cutting in with their own comments. Gan Qing was glad that she had hid herself in the balcony earlier on. She picked up a piece of candy from the floor and tossed it into her mouth and pretended that she was not there.
Yang Yifan walked over lazily to the balcony, holding her phone. She also picked up a candy and peeled off the wrapper while sending voice messages to someone at the same time.
"...It's Lunar New Year, don't make a fuss."
"Wasn't it because you weren't in the other day?"
"I even prepared a present for you…"
"Ai… hey, what's this about parting without hard feelings?"
At the side, Gan Qing listened to each line with great interest. She saw President Yang let out a tsk, her patience exhausted, then stopped replying and put her phone away.
"Boyfriend?" Gan Qing asked.
"There are plenty of 'boys' but 'friends' are harder to find." Yang Yifan fished out a slim cigarette for women. "He's a little puppy. He does my hair and I've given him presents a few times. A couple of days ago, he wasn't there when I went to get my hair styled. I didn't want to bother changing the appointment so I got someone else to do it and now he's harping on it… I can't take the ones that are too baby next time. They're sticky, it's annoying."
As she spoke, she reached into the cabinet on the balcony and rummaged around and took out a bag. "Since he doesn't want it, I'll give it to you. It's a wallet, the style is very feminine. It's unisex."
"No, thank you," Gan Qing hastily refused. "I don't have money to put in it."
"If you don't like it, that's fine. Tell me what you like, I'll look for it another day." Yang Yifan smiled and blew out a puff of smoke. She easily accepted Gan Qing's refusal and put the bag away, then opened a WeChat group on her phone. The group members were very active, their chats flooding the screen and the photos flashing past quicker than the eye can see. There were famous brands, jewelry, luxury cars, candlelight dinners… it was a group that flaunted wealth like they were demented. Yang Yifan randomly tapped on a photo and showed it to her, and asked. "Do you like bags? Does this bag look good? It's a new model… I think that other than the time when you moved in, I've never seen you carry a bag."
Gan Qing looked rather like she was facing a dilemma. "I… Even though I'm just muddling along and waiting for death, I don't have any aspirations to be a kept woman for the time being."
"Your gender doesn't match my criteria either. Actually, I've long since wanted to have a chat with you," Yang Yifan said. "That old man of my family told me that you're Wei Xiao's disciple."
Gan Qing was momentarily stunned. For some reason, she couldn't help but feel that there was something not quite right about hearing the name "Wei Xiao" come out of President Yang's mouth… It was like a fourth wall had been broken.
"That Wei Xiao…" President Yang flicked off the cigarette ash. After a pause, her tone gained a rare respectful tone. "...Senior Wei Xiao. Even though I don't know him, I've always been very thankful to him. Unfortunately, I've never met him."
Gan Qing didn't understand her meaning. She couldn't think of any way Wei Xiao who had lived in hiding for over twenty years would have had any interactions with Yang Yifan.
"You don't know?" President Yang said. "When Senior Wei Xiao was young, didn't he once fight a match with some people which then started a feud? Among those people was my dad."
Gan Qing, "..."
In the middle of her shock, she turned her head and glanced swiftly at Old Master Yang in the living room. Hold up, wasn't Yang Yifan's father Old Sect Leader Yang's only child? Old Sect Leader Yang's only child's martial arts abilities were destroyed by Wei Xiao? The person with such a deep grudge against her wanted her to continue staying here, and even celebrated the Lunar New Year with her?
Yang Yifan stood in the middle of a pile of gold confetti and turned her head back. "Yeah, that's right. I'll be honest with you, my dad's martial arts skills were ruined by his hands."
Gan Qing said nervously, "I'll be honest with you, I feel rather awkward right now standing here."
Yang Yifan smiled. "There's no need for that. Back then, my dad thought of himself as the one who would inherit Beggars' Sect. What he hated the most was people saying that he didn't have the talent for martial arts. He couldn't obtain the true teachings of the Dog Beating Staff and was on the verge of losing himself in madness. He also didn't have a proper job and our family was so poor that Grandpa had to chip in to support us. Every day, he forced me to wear patched-up clothes and eat scraps, all in the name of preserving 'tradition.' I thought that it was pretty good that his martial arts abilities were ruined. We could finally live like normal people."
Gan Qing asked, "What happened to your father after that?"
"After that, he was finally willing to work. Someone found a job for him, operating the elevator right in this building," Yang Yifan replied.
"Oh, you don't know," Yang Yifan said. "In the earlier years, not many residential buildings had elevators. This building might look rundown and small now but back then, it was considered one of the more modern ones. A lot of people weren't used to elevators so the management committee paid to have someone in the elevator responsible for opening and closing the doors, and pressing the buttons for the required floors. No one does this job nowadays.
"Every day, from six in the morning until twelve at night, he would move a small table and stool into the elevator and sit there with a pot of steeping tea. He would chat a bit with anyone who went in. Anyone could do this job as long as they knew their numbers and it didn't require any skills or physical strength. A master of the house with an entire family, yet his salary was based on the minimum wage, not even enough for his traditional remedies. But no matter what, it was a proper job. It was much better than having him spending the whole day idling and getting up to no good with his scoundrel friends."
Yang Yifan spun her phone in her hand. That hand was a hand without even a single hangnail and was very well cared for. The flesh and bones were well-proportioned and it looked like the owner lived a pampered life. "When I was young, I even wrote words of gratitude to your shifu in my diary. But unfortunately, my dad found that diary."
Gan Qing was startled.
However, Yang Yifan didn't go on. Right then, someone in that chat group of hers that was refreshing madly sent her a private voice message. With Gan Qing's hearing ability, even if it was a normal phone that didn't leak noise, if someone in the same room made a phone call she could hear what the person on the other end was saying. Hence, she grabbed a handful of candies and prepared to go back into the house to avoid hearing the conversation.
"It's fine," Yang Yifan waved. "A proxy shopper in Europe, it's nothing serious."
After saying that, she tapped on the voice message to listen to it.
"Happy New Year, my dear!" A very sweet female voice came from the phone. From the tone, Gan Qing immediately knew that it was someone from the same line of work as her. Other than the people selling things, no one spoke like that. "I finally found for you that bag that was out of stock everywhere. There's even a discount, aren't you happy! It can be a New Year present for yourself!"
Yang Yifan looked rather lost. Perhaps she couldn't recall which model it was that she had wanted.
There were numerous dings as the other person sent a string of photos over. Then, she said, "I'll quote a price for you. The proxy fee is as per the rules and I'll give you privilege treatment since you're a regular. Hurry up and send me your preferred colour and model, darling. I'll make sure you can carry it when you leave the house on the very first day after the Spring Festival holiday."
Listening at the side, Gan Qing had goosebumps all over. She planned to try advancing her customers' status to "darlings" when she returned to her shop.
Yang Yifan skimmed through the photos indifferently. She showed her phone screen to Gan Qing and asked, "Not bad, right?"
"Not…" Gan Qing hadn't even made out whether the bag was round or flat when she saw the price the proxy shopper stated and nearly bit her own tongue. Before she could finish counting the number of zeros at the end, the message was pushed up. All at once, she didn't dare comment thoughtlessly anymore for fear of committing the offence of treating the renminbi with disrespect.
Then, she heard Yang Yifan reply easily beside her, "I don't want the black and the yellow. For the rest, I want one of each. I'll transfer the deposit to you?"
Gan Qing, "..."
She felt that she could brag to other people in the future. After all, she was someone who was neighbours with a member of the nouveau riche.
"I'm sorry, my dear," the proxy seller said in a low and gentle voice. "Right now, for the more expensive orders, I take full payment. We've known each other for so long, you trust me, don't you? Nowadays, other than orders from friends like you, I don't accept orders from anyone else."
"All right." Yang Yifan was rich and not petty with money matters. She didn't mind it. "Why have you started collecting the full payment in one go?"
"Ai, actually it's Coco," the proxy shopper hesitated a while but couldn't resist saying in the end. "Before this, I helped her get a pair of shoes from Italy. I've sent the item to her a few months already but she still hasn't transferred the other half of the payment to me. Maybe there was a problem with the shipping? But she doesn't reply to my messages and my calls to her can't get through. I can't contact her in any way now… Ai, I'm not complaining to you. We've all known each other for so long and it's just a pair of shoes. I don't mind giving them to her as a present. I'm just a bit worried about her. You seem to be on good terms with her. If you see her after Lunar New Year's, just help me remind her."
Yang Yifan raised her brows, puzzled. "Which Coco?"
The proxy shopper's laughter could be heard all the way across the ocean. "How big is your harem, oh my god! I really like how you're so cold and fickle. It was just on New Year's… New Year's Eve that you were eating steak with her."
Yang Yifan was even more puzzled. "New Year's Eve was my company's annual dinner. My skirt was too tight so I wasn't full from eating. After the dinner, I had supper to make up for it and I ate alone."
The proxy shopper fell silent for a while. Then, she sent over a screenshot of her WeChat Moments.
The few photos in it looked familiar to Yang Yifan. She took a closer look—they were all photos she had taken herself!
On New Year's Eve, she had been bored while waiting for her food and had snapped a few photos. Someone had removed the watermark, adjusted the angle of the photos, then added the caption: Meeting up.
The proxy shopper said, "Erm… There's only about ten minutes between your post and hers. I saw that the both of you seemed to be in the same place so I left her a comment asking if she saw you. She said she was meeting up with her 'gal pals.'"
Yang Yifan, "..."
The proxy shopper said, "And on Christmas, she also posted your car. Erm… this is awkward. I have always thought that the two of you were on good terms… So, you don't know about all this?"
Yang Yifan asked, "Who is this?"
Yang Yifan's WeChat contact list was so long that she couldn't go through the whole thing and there were a whole bunch of random names inside. After all, this was a time when even buying a tub of face cream would result in the shop employees chasing you for your WeChat. Everything posted in her WeChat Moments was basically about food or play. There was nothing serious, so everything was public and there were no groupings. After searching for a long while, she found the account for "Coco." She couldn't recall when she added this person. The other person had obviously put her under a filter, all she could see was a few perky selfies.
"How can there be such a drama queen!" The proxy shopper was so shocked that she forgot to make her voice higher-pitched, speaking in a very rough and frank mid-pitched female voice. "She's even in the Goddess group. Fuck, this won't do, I'm going to expose her in the group!"
Due to this interlude, Yang Yifan's chat group was once again flooded with messages, as savage as a scene of a carnage.
"Sorry you have to see that. These are people I met on an app for product recommendations and sharing," Yang Yifan said. "There are all kinds of weirdos."
Gan Qing let out an ah. Her expression was one of confusion.
"It's simple—after you buy something, you share a few photos to show off, and everyone will say how jealous they are and compliment you. Everyone in the group knows how it works so it's more effective to be vain there," Yang Yifan said. "No one will shout in your ear, 'You spend tens of thousands to buy a baggie, have you gone mad.'"
She had just finished speaking when they heard Old Master Yang's voice carry over from the living room. "Isn't it enough to have just a baggie to carry your things? She even changes them every day! How much does one pound of pork cost? If I stew pork ribs every day, it's enough for me to stew for a few years! One baggie! Ai! Is it to carry a national treasure?"
Yu Lanchuan quietly withdrew his chopsticks that were heading towards the pork ribs.
Yang Yifan said, "Grandpa, I beg you, all right? Can you please not use the word 'baggie'?"
"But it is just a baggie!"
Yang Yifan, "..."
Old Master Yang said with a heavy heart, "Regardless of whether you have or don't have money, you should live life as it is. You can save money today but what if you can't save money tomorrow? You're only how old? You still have a long way ahead of you! You have to plan for the long term, save some money! When I was your age…"
The over ninety years old grandfather started on his one century's worth of recollections of how difficult the past had been and how easy the present was in comparison. The younger generation all had a headache from his recollections and fought for the task of clearing the table and doing the dishes. All they wanted was to escape from the scene.
Gan Qing was the only who steadfastly returned to sit on the sofa. While practising using her right hand to peel an apple, she occasionally interjected with a word or two as appropriate depending on Old Master Yang's tone, her attention not entirely on the conversation, but at the very least, the old man was not monologuing to himself.
Her right hand could write and there appeared to be nothing wrong with it most of the time. It just couldn't bear much weight; if she carried the weight for too long, her hand would start to shake. When she focused her strength on her hand, it would also start to shake. The cuts she made into the apple were sometimes deep and sometimes shallow. Yu Lanchuan watched her from the side with his heart in his throat.
"...isn't that right, Xiao-Chuan?" Old Master Yang asked.
"Hmm?" Yu Lanchuan was looking at the knife in Gan Qing's hand and had not been listening at all. He answered without thinking, "Yes, you're right."
He saw Gan Qing's hand tremble and the blade slid forward half an inch, heading straight for the spot between her thumb and her index finger on her other hand.
Yu Lanchuan was even more tense than the person holding the knife. He grabbed Gan Qing's wrist, pulling it over to have a look. Fortunately, the knife in Old Master Yang's house was blunt and did not cut open her skin. It had only knocked against her hand until the area turned pale.
"That knife is okay," Old Master Yang said. "The last time, Fan-Fan held it the other way round but it didn't cut her hand."
Zhang Meizhen crossed her legs and let out a "Mmhmm" at the side.
Gan Qing raised her eyes and gave Yu Lanchuan an inscrutable look. As though he had touched a live wire, Yu Lanchuan immediately threw her hand back at her. "There's even such a cutting tool specially for disabled people now?"
"What are you saying?" Old Master Yang smacked Yu Lanchuan and looked at Gan Qing's right hand. "Girl, your hand has been like this for a long time now. Did you get someone to look at it? I know a few doctors who specialise in treating this kind of injury."
"It's fine." Gan Qing shifted the knife to her left hand. Instantly, the apple peel seemed to come loose on its own, falling down smoothly. "It doesn't affect me."
"In the future, if you need to do anything that requires fine and detailed work, it won't be convenient with just one hand," Old Master Yang said. "Are you still working as a shop attendant at Tianyi's family's shop? You can't be a shop attendant for your whole life. What plans do you have for the coming year?"
Gan Qing smiled. "I'll think about it later. In any case, I'm just one person and I also don't have a need to buy… those 'baggies.' If I can earn enough for food, that's enough."
Old Yang finally caught a young friend who was willing to listen to him talk so, of course, he wouldn't let her go easily. He was very unsatisfied with her cursory answer. "You must make plans. While you're young, you should save up more capital for yourself… I see that you are good at cooking. Back then, your shifu too…"
Gan Qing's brows twitched slightly. She didn't want to talk about this with the old man, so she picked a topic that the other person probably also didn't want to talk about, planning to end the conversation.
"He's not my shifu. I've been thrown out of the sect." Then, she asked, "Back then, Wei Xiao injured your son's muscles and bones, and ruined his martial arts abilities. Did you not bear him a grudge all these years?"
Yu Lanchuan was stunned. He looked at Old Master Yang in shock, recalling that when the old man had brought up Wan Mu Chun in the past, his words had always been brief and unclear. He never thought that there would be such a story behind it.
But right then, Zhang Meizhen scoffed at the side. "Raising a son but not educating him, that's the fault of the father. That brat had it coming for a long time!"
Gan Qing didn't think that this matter had a lot more behind it than she had imagined. She looked at one, then at the other. "Erm, Meizhen-"
Zhang Meizhen interrupted her, giving her no chance to go on. She stood up and picked up her coat. "I'm sleepy, I'm going back up to sleep."
Old Yang opened his mouth as though he wanted to ask her to stay. But before he could stretch his hand out, Zhang Meizhen had already strode off without a second thought.
Gan Qing asked, puzzled, "Did I say something I should not have said?"
Old Master Yang had chattered non-stop for the entire night. Now, he just shook his head and sat on the sofa with his back hunched, and fell into silence.
Gan Qing felt rather apologetic. She handed the peeled apple to Yu Lanchuan without thinking. "Then, I… I'll go up to check on Meizhen-jie."
When she walked to the door, Old Master Yang suddenly spoke behind her, almost inaudibly. "When I scold Fan-Fan, it's not because I don't like her spending money frivolously on material possessions. Furthermore, she's spending the money that she earned herself, so what can I say… I'm just afraid that she's obsessed with it, just like her dad, and is blinded by these worldly desires."
Perhaps it was because the old man sitting on the sofa was a very lonely sight, but for some reason, Gan Qing felt that his last sentence sounded rather ominous.
Teacher Meng-Meng spent her days submerged in the arcane arts. She might have really gained a sixth sense through close proximity.
On the second day of the Lunar New Year, a phrase popped up in the trending topics without warning—"Feast of Yanning."
The people in the whole country were lying around idly during this long Spring Festival holiday. Once they got wind of this drama, every single one of them reached out their hands, planning to feast on it. Gan Qing also followed the crowd and tapped indifferently on a post and skimmed through it. The gist of it was that there were rich people in Yanning who gathered together to do bad things under the pretext of having a private dinner party. Among those implicated were high-falutin public figures such as a certain company president, a certain official's son and so on. A large number of indecent photos and videos were leaked—they had all been censored but the readers were free to let their imagination loose.
The photos and the videos were leaked by a girl who had been paid to attend. Right now, this girl had gone missing and her family had made a police report.
The last post had a photo of the missing girl. It was pixelated, but so lightly that it seemed malicious.
Halfway through enjoying this drama, Gan Qing choked. The girl looked like the one she had seen on Yang Yifan's phone on Lunar New Year's Eve, the one called "Coco."
"'Coco' is an online handle. This girl's real name is Wang Jiake, twenty-five years old, just finished her postgraduate studies a year ago and is working as a music teacher at No. 33 High School. The photos and videos online came from a 'cloud storage' that her phone is connected to. At first, they were sent directly to an app called 'Little Prairie.' As far as we know, this is an app that has a networking function, and photos and videos can all be posted. Little Prairie automatically adds a watermark to the users' photos. Then, someone took screenshots and reposted them on social media."
Yu Yan brought two unfamiliar police officers to the Yang family home. They wanted to ask Yang Yifan some questions.
The male police officer who was speaking was around thirty years of age. His face was grave, his features looked like they had been frozen in a refrigerator, and the parts of his face other than his mouth did not move an inch. His gaze was dark and heavy, and his expression when he looked at others was a mixture of assessing and wariness. He looked just like the main character of the animation series Black Cat Detective interrogating a rat.
Yang Yifan, the one being interrogated like a rat, blew on her newly done nails, her manner cold and indifferent. "What has it got to do with me? I don't know her."
The police officers that the residents there usually came in contact with were the neighbourhood police like Yu Yan and his colleagues. The neighbourhood police sometimes came by to mediate a conflict or look for a missing person, and were already familiar faces to the old uncles and old aunties in the courtyard. They would even be held back by the overzealous crowd sometimes and forcibly introduced to dating partners. Yang Yifan was extremely unused to this kind of attitude where she was treated as a suspect right off the bat.
Yu Yan hastily smoothed things over. "These two are our higher-ups. For the matter at hand, there is heavy pressure from public opinion and the pressure on us is also great. It's the Lunar New Year after all and a grown woman disappeared just like that, and there's no news of her at all… right? We may be hasty in our words or our tone may not be very pleasant, I hope you can understand."
Detective Black Cat said coldly, "The two of you have added each other on WeChat and also belong to an active chat group. And you say you don't know her?"
"Handsome, that chat group has over 400 people. An internet community is also a community—do you know everyone in your residential community? If a passerby had once asked you how much were the cucumbers you had just bought, are you able to recite that person's family tree?" Yang Yifan shrugged. "Okay, then you're pretty awesome."
Her words nearly put Detective Black Cat's ears into airplane mode. "Don't give me that attitude!"
Yang Yifan raised her elbows and rested them on the back of the sofa behind her and crossed her legs. She replied, "What attitude you give me, that's the attitude I give you."
"Stop, stop, stop." Yu Yan separated the two, then said to Yang Yifan, "President Yang, we went through this girl's various social media accounts and found that she secretly saved many of the photos you took. She started following your personal blog when she first entered university and even quoted many things you have said before. She should be someone who looks up to you. Can we ask you to try and recall…"
Old Master Yang cut in. "Fan-Fan, speak to them properly. A grown woman going missing, her family must be very worried."
Yang Yifan rolled her eyes but cooperated in the end. "I have a friend who does proxy shopping who helped her buy a pair of shoes. The agreement was for her to pay the remaining amount upon receiving the goods but she still hasn't paid up and can't be contacted. On New Year's Eve, she even stole one of my photos and posted it in her WeChat Moments to show off and replied to comments, but once the outstanding payment was mentioned, she pretended to be dead. I only found out about this a couple of days ago. Maybe you can investigate her financial circumstances."
Detective Black Cat asked, "Does this person frequently display a high-spending habit that is not in accordance with the level of her income?"
"I don't know how much her income is," Yang Yifan said lazily. "Neither do I know what counts as high-spending. However, the people who only spend a few hundred yuan at roadside stalls are typically too embarrassed to mingle with us."
That one line was like the firing of a thousand arrows, shooting everyone around her until they all became hedgehogs.
Yu Yang patted his own chest and chuckled as he tried to moderate the atmosphere. "It's a good thing the country gives us our uniforms to wear. Otherwise, I might be a man who wears cleaning rags to work every day."
Detective Black Cat remained unmoved. He looked at Yang Yifan intently and said, "I have one more question. On the night of the fifth of January, where were you?"
The "Feast of Yanning," the subject of posts that were being busily being deleted online, was on the fifth of January.
Yang Yifan's eyes turned cold.
Yu Yan hastily said to Detective Black Cat in a whisper, "Captain Miao, there's an elderly person here. Let's talk about this later…"
Who would have thought that the "elderly person," Old Master Yang, was not the least bit deaf. "Xiao-Yu, what's the matter?"
"We found a large amount of photos in Wang Jiake's cloud storage," Detective Black Cat said. He took out a phone from his shirt pocket and opened a few photos. "One of the photos captured a certain person. I think Ms. Yang should know her?"
Those few photos had been taken at a buffet's desserts station in a large hall. The lights were glimmering and the people standing or walking around the table were all dressed to the nines, creating an atmosphere of elegant beauty and luxury.
Next to the table, there was someone getting fruit juice. Perhaps the person had sensed something and had turned around to glance at the camera. More than half her face was revealed—it was Yang Yifan herself.
Detective Black Cat asked, "Does she look familiar?"
Yang Yifan leaned back, her arms crossed over her chest. "This was a charity dinner party organised by a friend's company to celebrate the company's tenth anniversary. Of course, the charity part is just a cover story but there's nothing wrong with that, is there? That night, I left at ten p.m. As for what time it was when the party ended and what activities they did after it ended… they didn't invite me and I don't know. Why, is it against the law to be wearing clothes and standing in a dining hall drinking fruit juice? Am I in any other photos?"
"In that case, we will need to ask you to take a urine drug test," Detective Black Cat said coldly.
"Ah…" Yang Yifan was first stunned, then she rubbed the center of her brows and smiled without the least bit of seriousness. "'Tch, some people really do not know how to behave."
"This matter is still under investigation. In the future, we might look for you again and we ask for your understanding when the time comes." A vein was pounding at the corner of Detective Black Cat's forehead. He stood up swiftly. "Other than that, Ms. Yang, during its early years, your company came up with many sensationalised stories for the sake of making its mark. You hyped up real incidents and by aggressively promoting the high-spending lifestyle, you attracted attention and earned large amounts of advertising fees. Later on, there were many people who followed the trend and did the same thing. You were the trendsetter. I admire your keen sense for the market and your ability to promote things, but I also hope that you can reflect on the negative impact on society that you have caused."
"Take care on your way back, Captain Miao." Yang Yifan did not care the least bit for those words. Beaming, she stood up to see the visitor off. "Your surname is really good, it fits you perfectly."
She closed the door with a bang, shutting the police officers out. The smile on her face that looked like it was painted on had yet to disappear when she turned around and saw Old Yang looking at her disapprovingly.
Old Master Yang slammed one end of the Dog Beating Staff on the floor forcefully. "Yang Yifan, what on earth is this about?"
"I'm being dragged in even though I didn't do anything, okay?" Yang Yifan waved him off impatiently. "She's an online friend that I'm barely acquainted with but just because we went to the same dinner party, I have to be interrogated by the police. I'm going to the office to work overtime."
"What overtime!" Sect Leader Yang's face was cold and frosty. "Why did that person say those words about you just now? What are you busy with every day? Come back here, Yang Yifan! Explain yourself!"
"Huh." Yang Yifan put on her coat and chuckled. "A minor, lousy civil servant who is paid a pittance every month. He doesn't have the ability to make money but thinks of himself as someone important. He probably feels that it's unfair and hates the rich, and can't stand the sight of the lifestyle that he can't afford and is also not worthy of. How would I know what he meant?"
"What are you saying!" Old Master Yang's short white hair was standing straight out from his head in his anger. "I've always told you that everything has its limit and you should know when to stop! Your no-good friends spend the whole day comparing-"
"What's wrong with depending on my own hard work to live the kind of life I like?" Yang Yifan cut him off impatiently. "I never told those young girls 'You need to make yourself look beautiful so that you can find a rich man to support you in the future.' I'm not afraid of saying this—I have never in my life said anything like that! I teach them to face their own desires directly! If you like branded goods, then scrimp on food and expenses to save money; if you like lipsticks, then get a second job or a temporary job to earn money and buy them. What's wrong with that? Shouldn't young people work hard? Shouldn't they fight? If they are like you and don't care about fame or fortune, and just take a tiny bit of pension money and nibble on steamed buns at home, would society become better just from that?"
"A gentleman bears poverty with a steadfast-"
"Sure, a gentleman bears poverty with a steadfast heart, only the wicked are driven to madness." Yang Yifan took down her crocodile leather bag from the clothes rack without the least bit of miserly air. "So, if you're a worthless good-for-nothing, go look for a corner of the wall to stand in and reflect on yourself. Stop poking your head out and envying other people for their riches. It's embarrassing!"
"Our family has been in Beggars' Sect for generations and has never asked for wealth. You need to have a clear conscience in everything you do."
"Grandpa," One foot out the door, Yang Yifan suddenly turned her head and said, "According to your words, my dad is exactly someone who doesn't ask for wealth and is a gentleman who 'bears poverty with a steadfast heart,' isn't he? Then, why did you feel that his intentions were dishonourable and even broke off all ties with him?"
Old Yang could not say anything to that.
When she finished speaking, Yang Yifan let out a scoff and turned to go.
Old Yang wanted to run out after her but he was so angered by her that for a while, his chest and his back felt numb. It took a long time before he recovered. He sighed and slowly walked into the corridor, just in time to see Yang Yifan drive her sportscar out, leaving a trail of dust as it rumbled away.
The world was changing too fast. From all directions, the clamour of worries and anxieties rose from the dust of the mortal world, the people's voices rising to the sky. The old ideas and principles that were passed down, that had been so deeply rooted in everyone's psyche since they were young, were now being eroded day by day by all sorts of new ideas. Even Sect Leader Yang, who held the Dog Beating Staff in his hands, was feeling fearful at the moment. There were times when he had a lot of things he wanted to say to the younger people but he was old now. It was not only his punches and kicks that had slowed down. More often than not, before he had finished saying a line, these well-educated young people had already answered ten lines with the rapidity of a machine gun. Every line could turn him speechless and make him wonder if he was indeed wrong.
He stood in the corridor for a while, then slowly returned to the house. He called the Beggar's Sect's core members in Yanning one by one and asked them to keep an eye out for the missing girl called Wang Jiake.
Gan Qing reopened the shop on the third day of the Lunar New Year. She had nothing to do at home anyway. Other than cutting things up with a blade, this person basically had no other hobbies. She got bored very quickly when she went online and had nothing better to do than to keep herself busy aimlessly. She had fried up a wok of doughcakes and a wok of crispy meat tenders, nearly working the exhaust hood to death. She gave them out to nearly all the neighbours, and there were still leftovers.
She scrubbed the floors twice a day. Meizhen-jiejie said that if she didn't look for something else to do, she was going to rub a hole into the floor.
"Welcome." Gan Qing was busy with customers. When she heard the noise from the door, she called out a greeting without even looking up.
The person at the door let out a hiss. "What's this nonsense?"
The ceiling near the entrance of Star Dreams was hung full of small resin door signs. The person who entered was too tall and accidentally crashed into them.
Gan Qing looked up. "Little Master Yu, you're here as a proxy shopper again?"
Yu Lanchuan ignored her. His brows furrowed, he looked at the resin signs hung up at the door. They were all written with "Overnight Millionaire."
"Crashing into a millionaire the moment you open the door, Little Master Yu, you will soar on the wings of success this year! I'll give you a 50% discount. Ten yuan and you can take one home, a good omen for the New Year," Gan Qing said with a wide smile. "Who knows, a rich lady might go after you and you won't have to pay your house loan anymore."
"With you as a… neighbour, I'm not going to soar anywhere," Yu Lanchuan muttered. "So tac-"
The word "tacky" hadn't left his mouth when the other two customers in the shop cut in.
"Teacher Meng-Meng, I want one!"
"Who wouldn't want to get a taste of being filthy rich?"
"Even in my dreams I want to try running my hands over shoes and bags that are inlaid with diamonds…"
"Ai, that's all we're good for. We're so poor that our imagination is limited."
"After you become rich, you won't come to my small shop anymore." Gan Qing wrapped up the resin signs for the two young ladies and passed them over. "I'm going to lose you soon, my darlings."
Hearing these auspicious and gratifying words of fantasy, the "darlings" were overjoyed. "If it really becomes true, there will be a long line at your shop here, Teacher Meng-Meng. You'll be the living God of Fortune among the mortals… Teacher Meng-Meng, why do I have the feeling that you've become sweeter after Lunar New Year?"
Having stolen some tricks from the proxy shopper, Gan Qing smiled without saying anything. She darling-ed the customers for a while more, so sweet that the two darlings ended up buying quite a number of other items before leaving in a daze.
Gan Qing saw them off and looked at the time—it was nearly time for lunch. The stove at the next door Tianyi Crayfish had already started to sizzle busily, the smell seeping in through the cracks of the door. Without thinking, she casually asked Yu Lanchuan, "And what do you want, darling?"
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
"Cough…" Gan Qing saw him looking like he had been struck by lightning and returned to her senses. She cleared her throat awkwardly. "Damn, I got too used to saying it."
People who sold things had numerous fantastical ways of calling their customers. Things like "Beautiful" and "Handsome" were the normal type, "Dear" and "Darling" were the corny type, "Your Majesty" and "Little Master" were the weird type, "Bankroller" and "Daddy" were the… shameless type.
The speaker usually put no meaning in these terms and the listener also typically did not take any meaning from them. When the deal was sealed and money and goods exchanged, everyone would conscientiously cut off all father-and-child ties of their own volition.
However, not only did Yu Lanchuan look like he did not want to buy anything, he also did not seem to want to follow the unspoken rules between buyer and seller. His expression was extremely complicated, making Gan Qing feel as though she had taken liberties with her words. She had no choice but to explain, "It's just a normal-"
Yu Lanchuan did not wait for her to finish speaking and interrupted her quickly. "Of course I know. You're overthinking it."
Gan Qing finished, "...second person pronoun."
The second half of her sentence overlapped with his words. For some reason, it became even more awkward. Gan Qing spread her hands. "I'm not thinking anything."
It is obviously you who are thinking too much.
"Isn't it just a slip of the tongue? Stop going on about it!" Yu Lanchuan wanted to quickly get this topic over with and in his haste, made it even more conspicuous. "It's not the first day you're being frivolous anyway."
"Oh, okay." Gan Qing gave him a solemn look and said mournfully like she was reciting an eulogy, "In that case, Mr. Yu Lanchuan, may I ask what you require of me?"
Yu Lanchuan's gaze drifted around the shop. "Yesterday, you posted the crystal bracelet for relationship luck in the new year, and also that scissors…"
"Scissors?" Gan Qing had a puzzled look on her face. "I don't sell scissors here. Why don't you try asking at the sundry shop next door?"
Yu Lanchuan asked, "It's the kind of scissors specially for looking for lost items. Didn't you post an article about it in your WeChat Moments?"
"That's called the 'Upside-Down Scissors Ritual.' Yesterday, I couldn't think of what to update the official account with so I looked up some of the more commonly known feudalistic superstitions online," Gan Qing said. "Which one of your colleagues asked for it, didn't they read the article properly? You can use normal scissors for that, you don't need one that has been blessed… That's strange, I thought that the people who liked to follow these little superstitions have all heard of this. Why, does even the arcane arts have older-than-average newbies who are also willing to spend money?"
The "older-than-average newbie" Yu Lanchuan, "..."
In actual fact, none of his colleagues had asked him to help them buy anything. It was the Lunar New Year, everyone was at home dealing with their extended relatives. It was just that he had wandered into Mudpool Backlane without realising it and had somehow come to the shop. He himself didn't know why he was there and when she cornered him with her questions, he came up with an excuse in a hurry.
In an entire year, it was only during the Spring Festival holiday that Yu Lanchuan could properly rest.
He had few relatives. This year, his parents were abroad, his granduncle had departed from the mortal realm, and the whereabouts of his own father was unclear, so he had even fewer relatives to visit. At first, he had already planned it out—he would spare half a day to take the gremlin child Liu Zhongqi out to play and the rest of the time would be for quality time at home.
He needed to review the previous year and list out his personal plans for the coming year. He needed to catch up on the classic films and books. He needed to pick one or two online classes to break into a new field and give himself a few more qualifications to add to his resume. This was how he had spent his holiday every year, busy and fulfilling.
But this year, for some reason, his heart felt restless and irritable sitting at home. He kept wanting to find a reason to come out and wander around.
"As for the pink crystals for relationship luck, you can pick it yourself." Gan Qing took out a few large cardboard boxes. Perhaps she had just gotten more stock and hadn't yet had the time to wrap them up. She spread them out on the counter and they looked just like the beaded curtains sold at roadside stalls in the previous century—extremely unpleasant to the eye.
Yu Lanchuan reached out and picked through them in distaste. "When the things you're selling are such rubbish, how on earth do you convince people that they're effective?"
"If you believe in it, it will work," Gan Qing said nonchalantly. "Those who are willing to spend money to buy these things have a pressing desire to find a partner. The streets are full of people anyway. Something like a partner, if you look for one sincerely you'll definitely bump into a few. Doesn't that make it effective? As for those who do not take action themselves and expect their dream partner to fall from the sky, wearing this can bring them some self-consolation."
Gan Qing lifted her eyes, revealing irises that appeared grey due to her contact lenses. "Someone likes me in secret."
Yu Lanchuan's steady heartbeat missed a beat.
"But that person is too shy and I'm too slow, so I don't know about it." Gan Qing picked up a pink crystal bracelet. She wiped off the dust on it and started to put it in a gift box. "The season where the weather turns warm and the flowers blossom is right around the corner, it's nice to have this kind of delusion then. After all, this shop's main business is in selling dreams and all things beautiful."
Yu Lanchuan was struck speechless. It was only after a long while—after Gan Qing had wrapped up all the pink crystals nicely, humming a tune the whole time—that he suddenly said out of the blue, "It might not be a delusion."
Gan Qing stared blankly. "What?"
"Nothing. I was being literal." Yu Lanchuan leaned over and pretended to be unconcerned, his gaze sweeping aimlessly across her counter. "Sometimes, you feel that someone likes you in secret. Who knows, it might be true."
"Firstly, there is no blood feud between any parties; secondly, there are no complicated rules governing everyone's behaviour. No matter how shrewd a person is, what they hide is their bad intentions. Who would be so free to hide their good intentions so deeply?" Gan Qing snorted a laugh. "In that case, how bad must the person be at reading other people to be so slow that they have no clue at all? This kind of idiot is pretty rare."
Yu Lanchuan paused, then twisted his head around. He sensed the meaning hidden in Gan Qing's words.
Gan Qing didn't look up. "Nothing. I was being literal."
The world of adults was like being in a combat match on an elevated stage. Just a shallow demonstration was enough, not every single thing—major or minor—had to be explained in great detail.
I am aware of your affections but I do not wish to reciprocate.
Yu Lanchuan's gaze fell on the pink glass beads. "...I see."
His heart that had missed a beat fell onto the hard cement floor with a thunk, nearly shattering into pieces.
Gan Qing beamed at him and said, "There's a New Year's promotion on the pink crystals, buy five and I'll give you the 'Overnight Millionaire' sign for free. Your rich lady is waiting for you not far away."
Yu Lanchuan went through the selection and picked out four bracelets. He tossed them at her. "I'll get these."
In winter, the next door Tianyi Crayfish mainly sold hotpot and soup noodles. Boss Meng was guiding his student on stir-frying a wok of ingredients and saw Yu Lanchuan through the smoke and grease-stained window. "Little Master Yu, drop by here if you have the time. I have-"
Yu Lanchuan gave him a quick nod and left without a word.
"...freshly-cooked spicy sauce." Meng Tianyi looked at this retreating back and muttered something. "Why did he leave so quickly? I wanted to give him a jar to try."
"What spicy sauce?" Gan Qing came in. "Uncle Meng, I want it."
"You only know how to eat." Meng Tianyi glanced at her crossly. "Hotpot?"
"I'm hungry already, don't make something so troublesome. Just cook a few slices of beef and add them to a bowl of noodles." Gan Qing took a peek and used chopsticks to gouge a bit of the spicy sauce. She tasted it. "Oh! This is good, use this to mix the noodles!"
Meng Tianyi teased her. "You've barely opened shop for two days after Lunar New Year and Little Master Yu has come by quite a few times, hasn't he?"
Gan Qing washed her hands and took over the cleaver from the little student. She sliced the beef at a very fast speed. "Good friends are friends who take care of your business."
Meng Tianyi shot her a glance. "Don't give me that. Can there be purely platonic friendship between a man and a woman? You think I've never been young?"
Gan Qing smiled. "Yes, yes. You are the famous idol of Mudpool Backlane, Pan An Crayfish! Who doesn't know your name?"
The cleaver in her hand rose and fell. In just a short time, she had finished the little student's task for most of the day. The inexperienced little student who had not seen much of the world watched her with wide eyes and an opened mouth.
"It's true that it isn't easy for there to be a purely platonic friendship between a man and a woman." Gan Qing stabbed the cleaver on the chopping board and said nonchalantly. "However, a ram and a doe having a civilised friendship while grazing isn't something rare."
Meng Tianyi understood what she had left unspoken and was stunned.
Gan Qing lifted her chin at him. "Uncle Meng, make sure the noodles don't become soft. Don't overcook it for me."
During the Spring Festival holiday, Star Dreams closed early. Before dinnertime, Gan Qing had already closed the shop and bought her groceries, ready to return home. When she was nearing No. 110 Courtyard, her footsteps suddenly paused. She twisted her head around and stared at a small alley at the intersection—an indistinct shadow had flashed past that spot!
Without hesitation, Gan Qing gave chase.
This was the maze of alleys where she had followed Xiang Xiaoman back then and also where she had tricked Liu Zhongqi into buying her tea. The area was tangled and complicated. At this time, there were few tourists and the streets were empty. Gan Qing stood at the intersection for a few seconds, paying rapt attention to her surroundings. A small blade swiftly flew out from between her fingers, slicing through the northwest wind and heading towards the bicycle rack in the dark.
The blade flew in an arc and there was a sound of ripping cloth, almost inaudibly soft. It had cut open someone's clothes! Right after that, a small and thin figure leaped out from the bicycle rack.
Gan Qing called out, "Wait a minute, this friend over there."
That person did not pay her any heed. Like a monkey, they leaped out from among the rusty bars and scampered away. They seemed to be very familiar with the area, leaping and darting right and left in the narrow alley. Gan Qing chased them through two streets and unexpectedly lost them!
Night fell early in winter. Twilight was already creeping up all four sides at this hour. The wind squeezed through the alleys of differing width and howled at different pitches; the sound faintly revealing the situation in every alley to a person who knew how to listen. Within it was the sound of very quick, very light footsteps.
Gan Qing turned in the direction of the sound. But before she could give chase, there was a sudden, vicious gust of air coming from behind her—a metal rod was swinging right at the back of her head. She seemed to have seen it coming; with one hand holding her shopping bag, she spun half a circle on one leg, raised her left arm and steadily caught the oncoming metal rod.
The person who sneak-attacked her was well-equipped. A face mask covered their face securely, revealing only a pair of small and dangerous-looking eyes.
She narrowed her eyes. In her left hand, a few small blades glinted under the dim streetlights. "Coming for me? This is new."
The sneak attacker suddenly lowered their wrist, breaking free from her grasp. The metal rod swept towards her waist. Gan Qing retreated swiftly. A cold light flickered between her fingers and slipped under the metal rod, piercing unerringly into the wrist of the sneak attacker who was holding the metal rod. At the same time, she happened to have her back to the entrance of another small alley when dodging backwards and before she could stand firm, a man suddenly rushed out from that alley. He was holding a watermelon knife in his hand, lunging right at her back!
Gan Qing's heel did not land on the ground. She bent her knee slightly and flipped up from the ground with unimaginable grace, her body arching as she bent backwards into a bridge, just barely missing the knife. The knife-wielder made a sound and turned his wrist. The knife switched from a stabbing to a horizontal slicing motion but before he could put his full force into it, there was a sudden pain in his wrist. A large potato had smashed right into it!
The blade of the knife tilted downwards. The next second, someone grabbed his wrist. Gan Qing used the momentum from her backflip to twist his wrist almost 180 degrees. There was a terrifying crack from his wrist bones and he let out a blood curdling scream.
Right at that moment, a brick flew over from somewhere. At the same time, the blinding headlights from a vehicle swept over to shine directly into Gan Qing's eyes.
Her vision blurred and she couldn't see anything clearly. The person whose wrist she had broken took the chance to give her a shove. Gan Qing could only use her intuition and her hearing ability to twist her head away as much as possible. The brick scraped past her shoulder and fell to the ground.
There was the rumbling sound of a motorbike being started up. By the time she regained her ability to see, the few people who had sneak attacked her just now had already taken advantage of the chaos to run away, leaving only a watermelon knife and a few drops of blood on the ground.
These people seemed to be only testing the waters, leaving as soon as they made contact.
Gan Qing stretched her shoulder that the brick had scraped against just now. She picked up the fallen potato. Slowly, her brows furrowed. If her eyes had not been mistaken, the person who had lured her into the alley was dressed in rags, just like… a beggar.
Not long after she left, the light in a house at the end of the alley turned on. A man dressed as a beggar peeked out fearfully, still unsettled from his shock. He kept his voice low as he spoke to the other person in the room, "She's gone. Now, do you believe me? When she fought with those people from the Xu clan, I was right there. I knew right away!"
 Pan An is one of the famous male beauties of ancient China.
In the room, someone let out a soft hmph and walked out of the shadows.
This man was around fifty or sixty years of age. His clothes and accessories were of a considerable quality. He wore a well-tailored dark coloured shirt, low-key yet luxurious, making him appear tall and upright and a few inches slimmer. Unfortunately, a middle-aged man's face was not suited to wearing excessive accessories, hence there was nothing to hide his face that looked like a dried persimmon. The sagging cheeks on either side of his face pushed the corners of his mouth down until they had nowhere to rest and his mouth resembled a small cherry. It looked almost cartoon-ish.
The little cherry mouth opened and a sinister voice spat out, "Your Beggars' Sect is really something. It's one thing to go around begging but you even collect scraps. Nowadays, any kind of person can move into No. 110. Why, are you guys tired of being righteous and reputable?"
Back in the years when the printed publication "Yanning Weekly" hadn't yet gone out of business, this face had once appeared on the cover of one of the issues. The issue introduced Wang Jiusheng, the old president of Futongda Courier Services, an outstanding local enterprise. A person didn't have to be particularly outstanding to appear in this magazine. They just needed to take their photos themselves, write the article themselves, and then send them to the publication company together with the advertising fee. All year round, they featured this type of people and blinded the eyes of their readers—there was clearly a reason why Yanning Weekly went out of business.
This North Branch Master of Travellers' Sect, who was rumoured to have never gotten along with Beggars' Sect, was unexpectedly mingling with a Beggars' Sect disciple right at this moment.
The corner of the man dressed in a beggar's garb's eye twitched. He lowered his head to look at his own arm where his sleeve had been cut open by a razor blade. The blade had just barely scratched his skin, slicing loose a very fine layer of epidermis. It was not bleeding. "Sect Leader Yang is old and muddled! When I told you guys to come and see for yourself, you just needed to see with your eyes! Why did you take action? What if you alerted her?"
"If we did, then so be it." Wang Jiusheng lit up a cigarette, unbothered. "She's just a foolish little girl."
"I've already said that she has the true skills handed down by Wei Xiao!"
"What's so great about Wei Xiao?" Wang Jiusheng laughed coldly. "He's just an old tortoise hiding in his shell. People on that path of theirs are talked about as though they are gods, but isn't it just because they like to hide in the dark and use dirty tricks? Right now, she's in the light while we are in the dark. She's a ghost under the glare of a lamp, how powerful can she be?"
"Branch Master Wang should first wipe his own ass clean." The Beggars' Sect member laughed coldly. "Your esteemed sect takes in all kinds regardless of whether they're fragrant or smelly. You're all registered at the police station."
"So what." Wang Jiusheng smiled, revealing teeth that had been artificially whitened until they looked like something out of science fiction and not something that should be growing out of a human mouth. "I didn't attack the police nor did I order them to. If you want to accuse me of being from a criminal organisation, do you have proof? It's a lawful society now. Even I don't bully people in this manner."
"That's not for sure," the Beggars' Sect member said. "President Wang, a large tree attracts the wind. Do you think that it's only the police who are watching your people? In the future, if you want to do anything, you better do it carefully. Make sure there aren't any beggars around."
"It's an evil thing to be old and impudent." Cigarette dangling from his lips, Wang Jiusheng's words were unclear. He turned his head towards the Beggars' Sect member and smiled again. His eyes crinkled in a harmonious smile, yet his teeth were still clenched and his features twisted. He was like an animal grinding its teeth and sucking on blood. "Didn't I find you? If you ask me, your esteemed sect's Sect Leader Yang Qing is already at that age and should be enjoying his golden years. Give him something to do so that he won't spend all day watching me."
"Don't rush, it'll be soon. We are thankful to President Wang for sending us coal in the midst of snow by giving us this great piece of information we can make use of," the Beggars' Sect member said. "Just one thing, that girl… nothing will happen to her, right?"
"What could happen to her?" Wang Jiusheng smiled. "With a load of high-interest loans on her ass and so desperate that she's on the verge of selling her body, when someone gives her a way out, how would she dare do anything?"
"Then that's good."
"Ai." Wang Jiusheng waved a hand. "You know that I'm the one who hates stirring up trouble the most. We people who do business are most particular about 'harmony brings wealth.' In the recent couple of years, the competitive pressure in the market is so great and I have so many brothers under me that I have to feed. It's not easy. I just want everyone to keep to their lanes and do what they should do, live their days peacefully and don't cause trouble for each other… If you let a murderer stay next door, how is it any different from keeping a tiger at your bedside? Can you really sleep well at night?"
In any case, he wouldn't be able to do it.
Ever since Wang Jiusheng heard that "Wei Xiao" appeared at the little guest house and had nearly strangled the unlicensed cab driver Niu Liang, there hadn't been a single night where he had slept soundly. Even in his dreams, he dreamed that there was a cut measuring three cun and two fen on his neck.
Wang Jiusheng threw the half-smoked cigarette on the ground and carelessly grinded it with his foot. He did not even check to see if the flame had gone out before clapping the Beggar's Sect member on the arm and leaving.
The man from Beggars' Sect turned his head and watched him get into a car waiting at the intersection before cursing in a low voice. He picked up the half-smoked cigarette from the ground, wiped it carelessly with his hand and stuffed it into his mouth. Then, he blended into the cold wind without a sound.
His head aching like it was splitting apart, Yu Lanchuan walked into No. 110 Courtyard. Ever since he left Mudpool Backlane, there was a smothering feeling in his chest that not even the northwest wind could blow away.
Ever since he was young, he had thought highly of himself, almost to the point of narcissism. During Lunar New Year, his mother had tried to pressure him into getting married but she had barely started when this young master immediately displayed his position of "I will not wallow in the same mire as the profane world" and poured all his fortune into the down payment for his house.
In the past, Yu Lanchuan had thought that if he did not meet a girl who met the requirements, then he'll forget about it. In any case, he was not willing to force himself to settle for less.
If he could be just like his granduncle—mighty and vigorous when young, free as a lark to travel the world when old—wasn't that pretty good too?
The so-called "a girl who meet the requirements'' should at least have the beauty to make a person's eyes light up, have an educational background that was on par with his, have both IQ and EQ, have good self-control, have a warm and friendly personality but should not be too clingy, and must be matured and and controlled in handling matters… He didn't think he was being overly demanding because that was what Yu Lanchuan demanded of himself, so of course he was not willing to lower the requirements for other people.
But Gan Qing was the complete opposite of those requirements.
That person was unconcerned with her appearance, did not finish senior high school and even had a criminal record. She amused herself every day by swindling and conning people. When she should step up to handle matters, she hid in fear; when it was time to stay calm, her knife would always be faster than the wind. No one knew when she would lose control and she wandered around the edges of the law all year round.
But he had never imagined that, after just one year, he would want to hand over the freedom he had gotten in exchange for being a house loan slave for thirty years.
...And the other person had not even appreciated it!
Little Master Yu knew how to read between the lines. His dignity and his heart were both shattered into a mess; yet, amidst the fragments, a thought that had been tightly and securely wrapped up was leaking out.
He thought, Why is the first person I seriously have feelings for someone like this?
Yu Lanchuan wandered around aimlessly for a while but his pent-up emotions still could not be vented. His thoughts muddled, he followed the crowd into a cinema and randomly bought a ticket for a movie that still had available seats. Perhaps it was due to the prohibition on fireworks and firecrackers this year, the cinema management and filmmakers seemed to take pity on the moviegoers' ears for the lack of excitement and had come up with a New Year's movie that had as much action as an air raid on Yanning City. For more than two hours, the actors put all their strength into shouting and howling on screen, and the noise from the surround sound system was deafening.
Yu Lanchuan had wanted to find a place that was pitch dark to think about life. He didn't expect his ears to be filled with donkey brays and his brain was shaken until it became a pot of congee. However, there were no empty seats in the cinema hall and he was in the innermost corner. If he wanted to leave halfway, he would have to hold the popcorn for a whole row of people and step on their toes as he made his way out. He had no choice but to endure for the whole show.
This perfect example of good health did not drown his heartbroken sorrows in alcohol but due to this unexpected turn of events, he still reached the state of intoxication.
When Yu Yan bumped into him at the entrance of No. 110 Courtyard, his very first line was, "Hey, Master Lan, were you drinking?"
"...Fake alcohol," Yu Lanchuan said. "Who are you looking for?"
"Old Master Yang," Yu Yan said. "You know we've been putting all our efforts into looking for Wang Jiake these few days, right? I've checked the CCTVs until I'm becoming short-sighted. Old Master Yang said that their Beggars' Sect has some clues. I came to ask him."
Yu Lanchuan was shrouded in his personal worries and was not in the mood to pay any attention to meaningless gossip. Hearing Yu Yan's words, he didn't even look up and only grunted and continued walking.
"I ask you—this girl is still young, her family earns a normal income and she works at a school—by right, she isn't in a competitive environment. So how did she live her life until it's such a mess? Now, she has disappeared to who knows where and the credit card creditors are hounding her for their money. That's still okay, at most it will only affect her credit score. But we made a rough assessment and we think that she might have taken out a high-interest loan. Right now, we don't know whether she's safe or not." Yu Yan sighed. "People online all say that she's someone brave who dares to expose the dark inner workings of the rich and might have been silenced by some parties. The rumours are so many that they can't be deleted in time. If we censor the keywords, we'll be accused of covering up. The pressure is heavy… Do you think that the 'Upside-Down Scissors Ritual' that Teacher Meng-Meng posted yesterday will be effective here? How about I secretly ask her to conduct a ritual?"
Yu Lanchuan only felt as though there was a fly near his ear, buzzing non-stop. He basically heard not even a single word and only the words "Teacher Meng-Meng" hit against his eardrums. He answered coldly, "When I get home, the first thing I'm going to do is call your boss and make a report about the personnel from his police station spreading feudalistic superstitions during work hours."
Yu Yan took a careful sniff but didn't detect the smell of alcohol. "...Were you bitten by a dog outside just now?"
While they were talking, the two of them reached the elevator lobby. Yu Lanchuan saw clearly the person waiting for the elevator and his legs came to a sudden stop.
Yu Yan said, "Hey, what a coincidence!"
Before Yu Lanchuan could turn and walk out, Yu Yan was clapping Gan Qing heartily on her shoulder. "Teacher Meng-Meng, we were just talking about you!"
This clap landed right on her shoulder that the brick had scraped past earlier. His strike made Gan Qing stagger a few steps forward before she caught her balance and her entire posture was askew.
Yu Yan looked at his own hand in bewilderment. "Did I… master the 'Buddha's Palm' technique on my own in just one night?"
Gan Qing felt that one side of her shoulders was like a cooked crab shell that Officer Yu Yan had knocked off with a smack and she could almost hear the tearing of the flesh parting from the bones inside. She strained to put on a smile. "You're truly worthy of being a police officer. Your skills… cough… gain a thousand miles in a day."
"Don't touch her randomly, you're so handsy." Yu Lanchuan pulled Yu Yan away. "Are you injured? What happened?"
"It's… nothing. Long story." Gan Qing sucked in a breath of cold air. She couldn't really stand straight. "Ow… the groceries… help me carry them for a bit."
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
She was in this state yet the bag of groceries she was carrying was completely untouched. Even the block of tofu didn't have a single broken corner.
Perhaps it was the "power of religious belief" that was protecting them.
"What happened to you? Did you bump into muggers on the way back?" Yu Yan quickly took the things she was carrying from her. Then, he recalled her brilliant performance when she single-handedly turned the tables on the reinforced team at the Travellers' Sect territory and peered into her shopping bag in bewilderment. "Would someone more powerful than you need to resort to mugging? Even if they do, they wouldn't mug you. What do you have that's worth robbing, groceries"
Gan Qing said, "Ai, be careful! That bag has a hole in it, don't let the potatoes roll out... ah!"
Yu Lanchuan swiftly pressed a few times on the shoulder that she was unable to lift up, checking that her bones were still where they should be. "Stop that nonsense!"
When the brick smashed into her, Gan Qing hadn't really felt the pain because she had been in a state of heightened tension. It was only when she was back now that she felt that it was rather serious. Her right arm could not be raised.
Zhang Meizhen was not at home. Gan Qing grumbled with a bitter smile. "You two sirs are really not treating me as an unmarried young lady. If we were in ancient times…"
Yu Yan was actually feeling pretty awkward. Seeing that he was partly to blame for Gan Qing not being able to move half her body freely, he couldn't just leave her there. Thus, he coughed and said tentatively, "How about I… go up to the eighth floor and see if Zhou-jie is at home? Or-"
Yu Lanchuan interrupted him. "You're just a bean sprout without a chest or a butt, no one will want to look at you even back in the Jurassic period!"
"..." Gan Qing blinked. "Why do I feel that these words seem a little familiar?"
As she spoke, she licked the back of her teeth with an expression that was not very dignified, and smiled. Then, unexpectedly, she really did not have much reservations and took off her jacket and the wool sweater she was wearing inside. The two young men, regardless of whether they were soft-spoken or hard talking, cowered in unison and shifted their gazes to the corners of the building.
However, the sensual scene in their imaginations did not happen. Gan Qing was wearing a workout jersey inside that could be worn outside in summer. There was only a thin and delicate layer of flesh on her shoulder, wrapped securely around her bones. It had the strength to control the tip of a knife down to the millimeter but bearing the force of a brick was a little beyond its abilities. A bruise extended from her deltoid muscle to the area near her shoulder blade, the burst capillaries under her skin weaving together to form a spider's web that was horrifying to see.
Yu Lanchuan moved his own shoulder involuntarily, feeling that his shoulder was hurting in sympathy.
Yu Yan said uneasily, "I even smacked so hard just now, this hand of mine is really… You can't leave it like this. You need to go to the hospital and get an X-ray."
"That's not necessary." Gan Qing turned her head back to look and didn't think much of it. "The brick scraped it a bit. I think the bones are still fine."
"Where's the nearest hospital?" Yu Lanchuan ignored her and took his phone out to call a cab.
"That's really not necessary." Gan Qing pulled her down jacket back up and stood up unsteadily. She paused, then said, "Ai, fine. Actually, Uncle Meng told me to apply for social health insurance but I let it drag until now and still haven't applied… Going to the hospital is too expensive. It's my right arm anyway, it won't affect anything. I'll apply medicine myself and it'll be fine in a couple of days."
Yu Lanchuan could not stand it anymore and was practically spitting fire. "Since it's not of much use, why don't you cut it off and make soup with it?"
Gan Qing, "..."
"Anything that's useless, you'll insist on doing it; anything that's serious, you'll insist on putting it off. You even put off getting social health insurance!" Yu Lanchuan said angrily. "What medicine are you going to apply yourself? Go to the kitchen and knead white peppercorns and flour into a dough to make your own homemade ointment? It's the twenty-first century now but you're still trying to overthrow the Qing and return to the Ming dynasty!"
Yu Yan said hastily, "It's my fault, it was my hand that slipped. I'll pay the medical fees."
"You'll pay? Are you very rich?"
"...Master Lan, why are you like a cat whose territory was breached by someone?"
Gan Qing, the "territory," said, "Erm, I…"
"Don't speak." Yu Lanchuan turned to pick up the call from the driver he booked online.
The ride he booked very quickly arrived at the building. Gan Qing had originally planned to go home and cook, but somehow ended up being pushed into the car and dragged to the nearest hospital that specialised in orthopedics.
The roads were not congested and even the hospital was quieter than usual. Gan Qing rarely had the chance to receive medical treatment. She lifted her head to look at the building for outpatient service, a little at a loss. Yu Lanchuan threw out a "Wait here" and left her on a chair while he went to get a number himself for registration. The bitter smell of medicine drifted along the floor. The medical personnel walking by occasionally were fully focused on their jobs.
Yu Yan looked at Yu Lanchuan's back and suddenly said with a sigh, "Actually, Master Lan hates meddling in other people's business the most."
The right side of her body stiff, Gan Qing lifted her head to glance at him. "...The 'Lan' I know might not be the same one you know."
"Yeah, so what I'm saying is, he's really nice to you." Yu Yan sat down beside her and took out a small notebook. "Just now, I tried a few times to ask you what happened but he stopped me every time. Teacher Meng-Meng, why don't you make a statement?"
There was nothing that needed to be hidden so Gan Qing told him everything, briefly and succinctly.
"I finally understand what they mean by 'those who drown can swim,'" Yu Yan said with a deadpan face. "Pitch dark, obviously a trap—how could you dare to chase after them on your own?"
Gan Qing smiled, not at all upset. Her face was the perfect example of "Listening with an open mind, zero intentions of changing."
Yu Yan asked, "What about the knife and the bloodstains? Did you gather them?"
"Nope," Gan Qing said. "Let me put it this way. When Wei Xiao—that's my former shifu—went to No. 110 in the past, he had always avoided being seen by others. There are so many people in Beggars' Sect, even Sect Leader Yang's son has a feud with Wei Xiao. It's only normal that they don't like the sight of me. The last time at that Paradise place, I fought with the people from the Xu clan so I already guessed that something like this would happen. It's normal."
"Just because you have a rough idea of what's going on, there's no need to save the evidence? This is called 'intentionally causing injury'! How is it normal?" Yu Yan became serious. "Little Master Yu is right. It's the twenty-first century already, why are you guys still engaged in jianghu feuds?"
"Normal people have their fights and brawls, jianghu people have jianghu debts and enmity. If you want to handle all of that, do you police have enough hands?" Gan Qing let out a laugh. "Furthermore, do you think these people are good citizens who will piss their pants in terror just because they're in a detention center? These minions depend on the people keeping them. Even if they're caught, they won't give up their masters' names. The first time might be new to them; by the second time, they're used to it already. They'll be locked up for a while and when they're freed, they can still make a living. Comrade Officer, your uniform can scare people who are good but those who are really bad aren't at all scared of you guys."
Yu Yan had nothing to say to that.
"They can harass a person living a proper life until that person goes crazy." Gan Qing tucked the stray strands of her hair that had fallen forward back behind her ear with her uninjured hand. "Luckily, it's me."
It was fine if it was her. She was all alone in the world. If her mood was good, she could just walk away from it all; if her mood was bad, she could accompany them and go down fighting. She didn't have anything to her name, they could all sit down together and compare whose feet were more bare.
As long as a person was willing to abandon all hope and smash the jar that was already cracked, they could live without fear.
Gan Qing said, "But there might be people causing trouble for Sect Leader Yang these few days."
Yu Yan fell silent for a while. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Yu Lanchuan was done registering and was walking towards them. He couldn't stop himself from asking, "Gan Qing, you might not like bags or jewelry, so what do you like? A person must have something they're aiming for in life, right? Aren't you afraid that you'll have nothing at all in your hands when you're old?"
Gan Qing thought for a while, then replied. "Some people are playing the 'accumulate items and run a business' kind of game while others have turned on the 'wandering adventurer' mode. They're just different lifestyles, how is one better than the other?"
Yu Yan said hesitatingly, "That's true…"
Then, he heard Gan Qing slowly twist the knife. "In any case, regardless of which mode it is, most people live in a state of confusion. They are either pointlessly busy or they don't know where they'll be staying tomorrow. Both states are equally miserable."
Yu Yan, "..."
Gan Qing was completely and thoroughly put through the wringer at the hospital. She took an X-ray and then had a consultation with a doctor, and after all the huge fuss, the conclusion given was the same as her own—her bones were fine, she just needed to go back and rest for a few days and not get into any more trouble.
The doctor prescribed her medicine for the bruise. Upon hearing that a brick had smashed into her, the doctor thought that the young lady had been standing near a construction site for no good reason and gave her a long lecture, telling her that "A person of noble character does not seek danger."
By the time they left the hospital, it was already very late. Gan Qing was fretting a little over what to make for dinner when she heard Yu Yan ask, "Where's Yu Lanchuan… Hey, Master Lan, where have you gone to now?"
Yu Lanchuan had done the registration and also collected the medicine. On average, he disappeared once every five minutes and then popped up again after a while. He was so busy that he did not speak even a single word, and could not spare even a second.
"The car is over there." As Yu Lanchuan spoke, he pushed a paper bag at Gan Qing. The delicious smell of baked bread wafted out of the bag. It was a sandwich set meal, still warm.
"'Tsk," Yu Yan made a face. "I thought you were going to treat us to a lavish meal, Rich Guy. Even senior high school students don't buy fast food when treating girls to a meal."
"What lavish meal, is she going to eat with her feet?" Yu Lanchuan shot Gan Qing a glance then turned to rant at Yu Yan. "Isn't it enough that I'm feeding you, why do you have so many complaints!"
Gan Qing's heart skipped a beat, softly. Her left hand was her dominant hand but this was because she forced herself to change after getting injured. She still used her right hand when using chopsticks and holding drinks. Her right hand was not as dispensable as she had said.
While she was spacing out, Yu Lanchuan quickly reached a hand out and took away the drink in her paper bag. He twisted the cap open it and stuffed it back into her hands like he was throwing a grenade, then walked away as though nothing had happened.
Gan Qing, "..."
She stood by the roadside and took a careful bite of the sandwich in the paper bag. Then, lightly, she drew in a breath of cold air. It was strange. Her injuries had been treated and she also had food to eat. But somehow, her injured shoulder was starting to hurt unbearably.
Yu Yan turned around from the front and said, "Eat when you're in the car! Don't swallow the wind along with the food. Ai, Teacher Meng-Meng, why are you like a child?"
Gan Qing made a vague noise in reply and dragged her half-paralysed body along.
A rundown Santana stopped at the zebra crossing to let her pass. Gan Qing nodded absent-mindedly at the car. She didn't look up. One human and one car brushed past each other in that brief encounter.
In the front passenger seat of the Santana, a young woman dug her fingernails into her seatbelt, anxious and restless. She took the chance while the car was not moving to ask the driver next to her in a cautious voice, "Why do I need to switch places?"
The driver said, "Isn't it your own fault? We told you not to go outside and don't let anyone see you but you didn't listen."
The girl stammered, "I saw that… the street was empty…"
"Vagrants are not people? Beggars are not people? I'll be honest with you, those beggars and vagrants can be bribed, all it takes is one meal and they can act as spies for those scumbags who give out high-interest loans."
The girl shivered. "Then have they… found me? You people promised to help me repay the money, have you done so? I… When can I go home?"
The driver wound the window down a crack and blew out a puff of smoke. Slowly, he started the car moving. He said in a cursory manner. "Soon."
The girl was anxious. "But the interest is charged every day. The longer it's put off, the more it'll be!"
"I know there's interest, you don't have to tell me. Do you think that you'll be fine once the money's repaid? The police and the people in the photos are all looking for you." The driver shot her a glance. "How can it be so easy? Bear with it a while longer."
 The "white peppercorns and flour" homemade medicine that Yu Lanchuan rants about is 金疮药 jīn chuāng yào. According to Baidu, it's used mainly to treat cuts, effectiveness still under research, and is made from many ingredients including lard, pine resin, flour, musk, beeswax, and camphor.
Also, just want to note that Wang Jiake and Wang Jiusheng share the same surname but they're not related. Wang 王 is a common surname.
The girl in the Santana was none other than the one Yu Yan and the others were frantically searching for, Wang Jiake.
Based purely on her facial features, Wang Jiake was very beautiful. However, every fiber of her being was emitting a deep sense of unease, a state that was like being the female lead in a horror film—losing her head in panic, every intersection and every corner seeming to have a monster that could pop out suddenly at any time. She was trembling all over, shifting restlessly in her seat.
The driver glanced at her in the rearview mirror and turned up the heat. "Why, feeling cold?"
Wang Jiake nervously folded her arms across her chest and shook her head.
There were many red lights along the way. The driver was very bored and naturally, used the beautiful lady beside him to while away the time. He asked, "What kind of money was it that you borrowed and can't repay? Such a beautiful lady, were you taking drugs?"
"No, I wasn't."
"Then, gambling? Doesn't look like it." The driver sized her up, looking at her out of the corner of his eye. Then, with no good intentions, he asked, "Surely you're not redeeming yourself from a pimp?"
Wang Jiake was thin-skinned but when this man who was like a hoodlum insulted her, she only dared to be angry but dared not say anything. Her face reddened from holding it in.
"I just want to chat," the driver said easily. "It's Lunar New Year but I have to come all the way here to pick you up. I'm just joking and you got angry? You sure have a hot temper for a lady, how are you going to survive in the world?"
Wang Jiake had graduated not long ago and had a natural reverence for the phrase "survive in the world." When offended, some young people—especially those who had been taught to be "kind, good, respectful, restrained and magnanimous" since young—would always first reflect on themselves and consider if they were the ones being troublesome, rather than firmly deciding that the other party was an idiot.
When the driver said those words, she stared blankly and then really felt a little embarrassed. So, she made her tone milder and told him honestly, "I… At the start, I just borrowed a little bit of money to buy makeup."
The driver was actually not interested in her sob story. Striking up a conversation was purely to tease her. Only half-listening, he let out a grunt to indicate that she should continue speaking. His eyes were almost turning in two different directions—one was just barely watching the road while the other had rotated towards the corner of his forehead for the sole purpose of staring indecently at the girl.
Wang Jiake did not notice it, entirely focused on digging her fingers into the seatbelt. "That day, someone in our group posted a secondhand set, a seasonal limited edition version. It was sold out all over the world and was no longer being produced. Her set was new and unwrapped, it was really a rare deal… I really wanted it, it was like I was obsessed…"
But it happened to be near the end of the month and she didn't have the money.
Working as a music teacher at a high school was an easy job that made other people envious because as everyone knew, music and arts class in high school was like the flower garden behind the old monsters in the mathematics group. The No. 33 High School where Wang Jiake worked was not a large school and did not recruit students that were talented in music. On average, she had one class a day. When there were any cultural activities, she sometimes helped to organise them. She usually did not have to be on duty.
However, in accordance with her easy job, her income was also not high.
Since she had few classes, Wang Jiake's monthly pay was only a little higher than the basic pay. Yanning was a city full of hidden talents. The children who had the money to study music would all look for well-known teachers at music schools. She was young and a nobody, even if she wanted to hold private classes, she could barely recruit any students.
By the end of the month, that small amount of money was not enough for anything.
The internet was all abuzz with rumours and slanders about her. The more they were passed on, the more twisted they became. There were people who said that she wore branded goods from head to toe and drove a Maserati the moment she stepped outside her door; there were those who said that she frequented high-class places and that she wouldn't stay at a place that didn't have at least five stars. In actual fact, they were all nonsense.
She didn't even have a sachima, much less a Maserati. Every day, she took the bus to work. Out of the three meals in a day, two were at her workplace's cafeteria. Most of her clothes and shoes were bought on Taobao. When she occasionally went to the physical shops in the shopping malls, she would only try on the clothes to scratch the itch. On her whole body, the only item that had a tenuous relation to "luxury" was an entry-level branded bag that she had gritted her teeth and bought for herself when she just started work, the type with a very perfunctory design and the brand's logo plastered all over it. It was not at all beautiful but because it cost a considerable amount, even with those "good looks," it could enjoy its owner's care and protection.
She was over twenty years old now. She had a job and she was a member of society. For her to have one or two fancier items to dress herself up with, was that crossing the line?
Even if these fancier items had resulted in her toiling desperately for half a year to pay her credit card bill.
After carving out the portion for rent, utilities and other necessities, the amount left in her monthly salary was barely enough to survive on.
Online, those people said that girls had to start using eye cream at twenty years old to fight wrinkles. At twenty-five, they would start to age, and their youth and beauty would flow away like sand between one's fingers.
Those girls around her age whose looks were originally just average were all very encouraging and shared tips and experiences in their WeChat Moments on how to put on makeup, dress up and accessorise to achieve certain styles. Day by day, their looks grew more dazzling. She was so beautiful, a little crane in a flock of chickens since she was young. Her beauty had basically become the foundation of her self-confidence but now, at this stage of her life where she was supposed to be a flower, she had to live a difficult life and couldn't even be compared with those ugly little ducklings!
Was she supposed to just pour a few pounds of glycerin on her face as skincare and call it a day?
In just a few years' time, she would become an old woman and even if she put on makeup, it would cake and crack!
Just one or two small items: a few tubes of lipsticks, a bottle of essence. At the start, those people online had said, "Your husband or boyfriend can't even grant your wish for these little items, how cheap are you." Later on, they said, "You need to depend on a man even for these little items, how cheap are you..." Whether or not it was feminism, she was not too bothered. In any case, regardless of what opinions either side had, the gist of it was: the items themselves are "insignificant," but you can not be "cheap."
And it was none other than these "insignificant" things that resulted in an eternal shortfall in her credit score and credit card account. Every month, when her salary reached her bank account, the first thing she did was repay loans.
But there would always be accidents in life. That month, she had just bought a pair of shoes. She was still saving up for the remaining payment when her phone was stolen on the bus. This unforeseen disaster was like the straw that broke the camel's back. Buying a new phone exhausted her credit limit.
Less than a week before she was paid, Wang Jiake only had 80.05 yuan on her.
Sometimes, a person would become as though possessed and have a ravenous desire to own an item. Furthermore, the more the item is beyond their reach, the more they would want it. The online friend selling the makeup item was quite generous. Since it was secondhand, she was selling it at 80% of the original price. But Wang Jiake just could not afford it. That day, all her feelings of grievances and injustice ever since she graduated were dug out by that little incident. Sorrow welled up from within her and she cried for half the night.
"On that day, I happened to receive a text from a money lender offering small personal loans," she said softly. "My colleague bought a house with a loan. I've seen him going around the school to get various documents. He had to put up a collateral and sign stuff in person, it was really troublesome. The bank was worried he would run away. I saw that the text message said 'Collateral not necessary, quick and convenient, money in your account within three hours'—so I couldn't resist trying. I guess it must be fate."
"What fate?" the driver asked. "Don't you get this kind of annoying text message every day?"
"Really? In the past, I had never read marketing texts closely, I didn't notice." Wang Jiake looked up in confusion.
"How much did you borrow?"
"2,000. Actually, they loaned me 1,950, the service charge was fifty yuan. I just needed to repay everything in one week," Wang Jiake said. "Nothing else was needed. I just needed to sign a loan agreement and I could get the money immediately."
The driver snorted a laugh. He felt that the current day female university graduates were really easy to deceive. The interest on a high-interest loan was named "service charge" and just like that, they couldn't tell what it was.
"I saw that the amount written on the loan agreement was 6,000 so I didn't dare sign it at first. But they said that most loans have collateral. Their business is in small and short-term loans, so they do not require a physical collateral. The extra 4,000 was like a 'collateral,' I just need to repay the 2,000 on time… They were afraid that I wouldn't feel reassured so they made a supplementary agreement for me that clearly stated that if I repay the 2,000 according to schedule, I would be cleared of all debts." Wang Jiake said softly. "My school doesn't pay us late. No matter what, I would be able to repay the amount."
Upon saying that, her face looked like she had suffered an injustice. "But coincidentally, I had a credit card payment due. Earlier on, for convenience's sake, I set up an auto-transfer to pay the balance. I forgot to set it to pay by installments so they directly transferred my salary out."
"The other party sent me ten messages in a day, telling me to take note not to be overdue on the payment. If I didn't repay the money, I would be penalised and my credit score would be affected or something like that… I didn't really understand. Basically, the way they said it, it sounded like I wouldn't be able to take out loans or take the high speed rail in the future. I didn't dare tell my family. I asked a few colleagues but they all said that they were still paying their credit card bills and didn't have money to spare… so I didn't feel like I could ask them anymore. At that time, the person who guided me through taking out the loan called me and said that his boss wasn't good to him and that he didn't want to continue working there. He wanted to change jobs and take his customers away too, and asked me if I would follow him. If I follow him, he would first give me money to repay the loan with this company, then sign a new loan agreement with him. I was going to be penalised soon and was at the end of the rope, so I agreed."
"After he knew my circumstances, he voluntarily did me a favour. He said he could make the term of the agreement last until next month. I was very grateful so when he asked me to help him with something, I agreed without thinking."
The driver had an idea of where her words were leading and he glanced at her with interest, feeling that he had gained a new idea for becoming rich. "What did he ask you to do?"
"He said that when he joined his new company, he would need to perform well so he brought me to the bank and transferred 100,000 to my account. Then, he had me help him print out an account statement, return the additional 98,000 to him and sign a 'yin-yang contract'—basically, on the surface, I took out a 100,000 loan but in actual fact, I borrowed 2,000. I didn't take the 100,000. It just went one circle and he paid it back himself. It was all for his work performance."
"The loan repayment term was one month. You couldn't have run out of money again, right?"
"At first, I wanted to repay the money," Wang Jiake said. "But that loan manager called me again and said that the competition at his new company was too great. He wanted me to help him push up his work performance again and asked me if I wanted to extend the loan term by another month. I just needed to pay 50 yuan as the service charge… I was short of cash in the first place and hadn't finished paying my other installments, so I agreed to extend it. Hence, he took me through another round of paperwork.
"...Later on, that terrible proxy shopper kept chasing me for the remaining payment and said that if I didn't pay up, she would blacklist me and post my identification details online. That was why I asked the loan manager to lend me another sum of money, just 3,000 was enough. But he said that I already have over 40,000 of debt under my name and that they couldn't give me any more loans.
"I was stunned. How was that possible? I've never seen that much money in my life. They clearly said that I would just be pretending to take out the loan…" Wang Jiake said. "But when I couldn't repay the money, those people started to send people to follow me and corner me at my school. They called me every day and stuck notes on my door… I couldn't bear it and moved back to my parents' home. But those people followed me like a shadow. They said that making a police report would be useless. They even wanted to sue me… I had printed the account statement myself so it was effective from a legal standpoint… Isn't that just something printed on any old A4 paper? It's so long but no one has ever told me that it is useful… the bank also did not remind me that it is something important, I thought…
"Later on, the first loan company contacted me. They said that a former employee of their company was doing bad things outside and they were warning their customers not to fall for his tricks. I nearly cried. I said, why didn't you say so earlier? They quickly sent a lawyer to meet with me. After listening to me, the lawyer said that there was nothing he could do either. The other party has evidence in their hands and there was no way I could explain myself. I had to find some way to repay the money first. He spoke with his company and they helped me pay the loan for the time being but the amount was too large, I needed to pay interest…"
The driver chuckled. "You can't still not know that both parties are from the same group, right?"
Wang Jiake lowered her eyes and stared at the road ahead. "So what if they are? I have no way out now anyway."
The girls in the same proxy shopping group as her knew about her problem and said that they could teach her a way to earn money. They took her along for a few meals and told her that it was not considered being a "hostess." They were just simply having a meal. Weren't there also women at the table?
Didn't those big bosses who did business have to attend social events too? It was just that their socialising was for the sake of business transactions, whereas their purpose was a little more simple. They specialised in socialising and depended on livening up the atmosphere at the dinner party and pouring drinks for other people to earn some extra income. It was a little like being a waitress at the table. The pay for each party varied, ranging from a few hundred to more than a thousand.
It could just barely cover the interest on her loan… but it was still not enough.
That was why, when the girls from the proxy shopping group told her that there was a dinner party that paid a very high price and asked her if she wanted to go, she agreed without hesitation.
"I saw her there," Wang Jiake said softly.
"Teacher Yang," Wang Jiake said in a soft voice. "I've read her articles since I was in school. I believed everything she said… I even joined her group and tried to find a way to be WeChat friends with her but she had always ignored me. She only hung out with those rich people."
"She had never told me that things would be like this."
"President Yang, the topics selected for this week have been emailed to you… President Yang?
"Hmm?" Yang Yifan finally shifted her gaze away from the mirror and absent-mindedly made a noise in response to what her assistant was saying. "Ah, sure, I'll reply when I've read them."
Yang Yifan treated her subordinates pretty well and her assistant had a good relationship with her. Smiling widely, her assistant made an impudent joke. "What are you looking at, President Yang? Counting how many sparkles there are due to your dazzling looks?"
"Sweet-talker." Yang Yifan smiled and sat back down on her office chair. She opened her email. "Just now, I recalled the article I wrote that got popular."
The assistant blinked.
"I think it was called… Buried at Thirty-Five."
The main subject was to yell at the young people in their teens: At such a young age, you are already seeking stability, heading towards a nine-to-five, marriage and kids, and living that kind of dull and depressed life where everything follows a prescribed order. Are you preparing to rest in peace at the age of thirty-five?
In any case, it was a bowl of motivating chicken soup with a stimulating shot of chicken blood and, for some unknown reason, there had been an entire pot of it.
In those couple of years, the real economy was coincidentally in a downturn and there were hints that employment prospects would not be good. The whole world was full of teenagers with their ears perked up, waiting in anticipation for a short and succinct Directions on How to be a Grown-Up. They swallowed the chicken blood soup in large gulps and wanted to grow and thrive from it. She had hit the spot with the majority.
Yang Yifan suddenly let out a laugh. "I'm almost past the age of thirty-five. So it turns out that thirty-five is just something like this. You aren't very old and you won't turn into a demon or a monster."
"But of course. A successful thirty-five year old is called 'young and accomplished.' They are experienced in the ways of the world and their worldviews have stabilised. They have such charm. I remember that article, that was when I started liking you." The truly youthful assistant finished her flattery and her tone changed. "But let's forget about those balding and big-bellied uncles and aunties. The moment they open their mouths, it's always about 'the necessities and practicalities of daily life.' From day to night, all they do is hover over the stove or around their kids. That type is called 'greasy middle-aged.'"
When she was done speaking, she realised that Yang Yifan had not said anything and was instead staring blankly at the computer screen, thinking of something. Hence, she tactfully closed the office door for Yang Yifan and left.
Alone, Yang Yifan faced the file in her computer and spaced out for five minutes. Not a single word went into her mind, so she stood up, opened the window, and lit a cigarette. In the full length window, her indistinct reflection could be seen. She looked as though she had been polished, every inch gleaming from tip to toe.
A person's outer husk was truly something miraculous. They all had the same skin and flesh, the same bones, but one only had to put on some adornments and everything could be turned on its head.
That "Thirty-Five" article was a piece that had not gone through any marketing nor any special planning. It was purely something written casually, in passing, and was filled with the fear the younger her had for "middle age."
When she was in her teens, she felt that people in their thirties could already prepare to retire. When she was twenty years old, she felt that there was no doubt that thirty-five was "middle-age." And to Yang Yifan, she had once felt that anyone married with kids was "middle-aged"—specifically, her parents were the very image of "middle-aged people. "
Her father's name was Yang Ping, the "ping" from "ping an"—meaning "safe and sound." When he was young, he had some issues with his endocrine system due to malnutrition. There was no major harm to his life, it was just that later on, he couldn't really grow much. When Yang Yifan entered junior high, her stature was already greater than her father's.
Mr. Yang was short and small and his bones weak. Naturally, his martial arts skills were lacking. Since young, he was the center of other people's gossip and whisperings—The Beggars' Sect's Sect Leader's son was a "half-crippled midget." Hence, he could only take an alternative route. Taking the chihuahua among dogs as a role model, he went out every day with a fierce and vicious look on his face. As time went by, his face indeed grew to become round with protruding eyes and his voice was abnormally loud, barking the moment his mouth opened.
After his arm was rendered useless by Wei Xiao, he spent every day crouched in the stinky elevator and could no longer go around freely. But as before, he considered himself the descendant of Beggars' Sect.
Yang Yifan remembered that he always had the stink of sweat on him and that he had very bad breath. His back was hunched from early on and his face looked aged and tense, scarily so. Meanwhile, her mother was a silent and uncommunicative weak woman. Her hair had turned grey early and her teeth on one side of her mouth were all spoiled. When she ate, she could only use the other side. As time went by, her face sagged on one side. Her facial features could not stay peacefully where they had originally been and drooped lifelessly on her face instead.
When a person reached middle-age, was that what they would become? This was something that had once made the teenage Yang Yifan very scared.
When she was in Year 3 of junior high, her class teacher had once asked her parents to come to the school. It was because her teacher found out that she was doing business with her schoolmates outside of school hours. At that time, the little shops on the school grounds were very cramped and the things they sold were expensive. Yang Yifan used her weekends to go to the wholesale market for small merchandise to "get stock," brought them back, and sold them to her schoolmates at a slightly lower price. She also helped her schoolmates who didn't have time to eat in the morning buy breakfast, collecting a few cents as a fee for every breakfast. Whenever her schoolmates grumbled about something being inconvenient, she listened and then thought of ways to solve the problem and earn money from it.
The teacher's intention was to get her parents to advise her. It was nearly time for the senior high school entrance examinations so it was best if she focused on her studies. Other "hobbies" could be left to be explored later. But before the teacher finished speaking, Yang Ping had—right at school, in front of her teacher and schoolmates—slapped her across the face.
"Go to school? What the fuck are you going to school for!" The man threw her school bag onto the ground and the contents scattered everywhere. Other than the books she herself used with meticulous care, there were also stationeries that she had bought from the wholesale market.
They were indeed small, meaningless items. But for the sake of economising her capital, she had to walk over ten miles there and back and her feet were nearly wearing holes into her shoes that did not fit. Every step was like walking on a scorching hot branding iron.
The man who dressed like a beggar all year round and was proud of it was not at all pacified. He stomped and stepped on the things. "Selling things… You're a foul Travellers' Sect's bastard! How dare you sell things! You've embarrassed me even at your school! You don't need to sit for the senior high exams, your compulsory education is done anyway!"
Could a girl around fourteen or fifteen years of age bear that shame?
From that day on, Yang Yifan refused to go to school no matter what she was told. Later on, she only bore it and went to sit for the senior high school entrance examinations. Naturally, her results were appalling and she entered an ordinary senior high school that was nicknamed "rubbish dump."
At that time, institutes of higher education hadn't yet begun to recruit students on a large scale. Unless it was a key high school, the students could basically say goodbye in advance to universities. She mixed with a group of teenagers who were already prepared to join the working masses and learned how to smoke, drink and fight in group brawls. Back then, her father had labeled her "foul" when she did a legitimate little business. Hence, she changed professions to collecting "protection fees" and completely became a little gangster.
After three confused and muddled years, Yang Yifan was prepared to be poured into the furnace of society to be melted down into scum and pollute the environment.
But when she was in Year 3 of senior high, the dirty deeds Yang Ping had done when he was young came to light. Old Sect Leader Yang was so furious that at the Martial Arts General Assembly that year, he announced that he would sever the father-and-son relationship between them.
Yang Ping left the family and vanished without a trace. When her mother went out to look for him, she met with a car accident due to her distracted mental state and passed away. Yang Yifan was taken away by her grandfather. Old Yang could not get used to her behaviour and ruthlessly beat her a few times. Every day, the grandfather and granddaughter fought furiously. But contained within her grandfather's Dog Beating Staff was a sincere and earnest heart whose strength exceeded a thousand pounds. Yang Yifan finally yielded under the power of this jade-green staff. Half a year later, she focused her mind and sat for the university entrance examinations.
After she flunked the exams, Yang Yifan was again forced by the old man to attend the class for repeat students. She worked hard for a year and entered an average-ranking school. Just like that, her journey full of perils, she finally slipped around the furnace and barely managed to return to the normal path and grew up to become an adult.
She might have grown up but her terror remained. She liked cats and dogs but it was only towards chihuahuas that she had a heavy, lingering fear. Every time she saw one of them on the street, she would have to make a detour.
The awkwardness from having to pay her school fees with small notes and coins, her desperate efforts to cover up the holes in her uniform with her school bag, her schoolmates' pointed fingers… they occupied the skin on her back like scars, striking at her so that she was constantly crying out a sharp and ear-piercing sound…
How You Live Your Life Defines You.
Don't Apply Face Cream for Twenty-Year Olds on a Forty-Year Old Face.
Those People Aged XX Who Still Wear XXX.
If You Don't Run Madly, Even the Last Bus Will Not Wait For You.
Let Me Tell You a Ghost Story: The Moment You See Your Parent's Face in the Mirror.
How To Become Someone Cheap.
Your Dull and Mediocre Appearance is Truly a Disgrace.
Right then, her phone rang. Yang Yifan picked up without thinking. "Hello?"
"I am Miao Feng. I went to your house a few days ago. My police I.D. number is-"
"Oh, I remember you." Yang Yifan exhaled a puff of smoke, interrupting him. "Captain Meow, what's the matter now?"
Captain Miao felt that her pronunciation was a little strange but he didn't know if he was being overly sensitive or if the phone's sound was off. He paused, then put this matter aside for the time being, and said to Yang Yifan. "There are some things online. It was not the police who leaked them. I'm giving you a heads-up."
Yang Yifan raised an eyebrow. "What things? My nudes?"
Captain Miao, "..."
Yang Yifan said, "If the photos are from a long time ago, please help me delete them discreetly. If they are recent photos, then just let them be. I've been taking care of my figure recently."
Captain Miao's blood pressure rose just from hearing her speak. He called on all the self-restraint he possessed in his body to hold back his anger and said in a strictly professional manner, "We are communicating with the relevant departments to take care of this matter diligently. However, Ms. Yang, previously you said that you left that gathering early and that you are not aware of a lot of things. We now have reason to suspect that you did not speak the truth. We will be visiting you again later and would like to ask that you cooperate with us."
After saying that, Captain Miao hung up on his end and Yang Yifan realised that in just that short time, her WeChat had a bunch of unread messages. She stared blankly, then opened one of them. A friend had sent: Fuck, is this you? You're in trouble!
Under that was a photo and a video. The photo was the one Captain Miao had shown her, the one that showed her taking desserts that day at the banquet.
The video should have been taken secretly. The hands of the person taking the video were trembling very hard and plant leaves occasionally entered the frame. That person should be hiding behind a potted plant. The main subject in the video was none other than Yang Yifan. She was wearing the outfit she had worn to that banquet and was sitting on the corner of a sofa, chatting with someone.
She seemed to have drank a lot. One of her hands was holding a glass of champagne while her other hand was on a young man's shoulder. She was laughing with the others.
The person who recorded the video seemed to be afraid that the viewers wouldn't be able to hear clearly and had even added captions for her words.
"...need to give them some pressure, there must be pressure."
"There are so many beautiful things, so many wonderful things. What are you waiting for? If you wait until you're seventy or eighty, will you still be able to enjoy them then?"
The young man in her hands smiled impishly and interjected, "Sell at a good price when young."
In the video, Yang Yifan burst out laughing and playfully pushed the young man's head to the side.
A phone call came from her friend. "This video has been deleted. I downloaded and saved a copy… Lao-Yang, at that time, what nonsense did you say, and to whom?"
For a moment, Yang Yifan's brain was a little disconnected from reality. "I didn't… we were just socialising and casually joking around, I don't really remember… But at that time, I should be talking about things related to managing a company, stuff like employee encouragement…"
"President Yang!" Right at that moment, her assistant who had just gone out barged right in without even knocking on the door.
Her friend yelled through the phone, "That's completely unrelated… Right now, they're all tearing you down, saying that you went there just to sell girls!"
When Gan Qing left for work in the morning, she already sensed that something wasn't quite right in the air.
The hour at which she went to work was coincidentally the time when all the retired and idle residents came together to hold their "circle the tree" activity. This so-called "circle-the-tree exercise" was basically these people forming a circle around the thickest old cypress tree in the garden and posing like the legendary dapeng bird spreading its wings, each of them with their own unique take on the pose, and going around the tree with their feet doing the moonwalk and their eyes on the tree like a tiger glaring at its prey.
Due to the fact that Old Sect Leader Yang also participated in this mysterious ceremony, Gan Qing had always felt that there must be some profound meaning hidden in it. Every time she passed by, she would sneak a few looks but until now, she had yet to understand it.
However, this morning, Old Master Yang seemed to have been delayed by something and didn't appear at the "ceremony." The circle of humans was short of one and was more sparse than it usually was. Those who were going around the tree also evidently had their minds elsewhere, the "dapeng spreading its wings" occasionally turned into "rooster pecking rice grains." Every now and then, someone would hurry a few steps and stretch their neck out to whisper a few words to the person in front or behind them, then go back to their place as though nothing had happened.
Gan Qing's hearing ability was too good. When she passed by, she heard a few snippets of their conversations.
"...Like I said, what kind of job can make that much money?"
"She doesn't even have a partner!"
"Right? It's so suspicious. How old is she now and she still doesn't have a partner, there must be something wrong…"
Gan Qing felt like she had taken an arrow to the knee. She left hurriedly, like there was wind under her feet.
When it was almost time to get off work, she was preparing to put away her work uniform and go over to Boss Meng's to get a free meal when she suddenly received a voice message from Zhang Meizhen.
"Don't come back so early tonight," Zhang Meizhen said.
Gan Qing's finger swept across the screen. She realised that from the day she moved into No. 110 until now, this was the first time something other than "Take in my delivery for me" appeared in her chat log with Zhang Meizhen. So, she asked, "What happened?"
Zhang Meizhen replied, "Things are messy at the courtyard. Don't interfere. Find someone and go on a date outside for now."
Gan Qing, "..."
Some veteran beauties would always feel that "finding someone to date" was as easy as "finding a place to eat"—was this something she could find just like that?
It would be quicker if she went out and kidnapped one!
Right then, the windchime at the entrance jangled. Gan Qing had already taken off her contacts and she quickly said, "My apologies, our shop has closed for the day."
"I know," the person who had come said impatiently. "I can see that large wooden sign, I'm not blind."
"...Little Master Yu?"
Yu Lanchuan's physical appearance at that moment was like those domineering bosses in television dramas. His shirt was severely neat and there was still a murderous intent between his brows. His coat was draped over the crook of his arm and he kept the door to Star Dreams open with one foot. He carelessly draped his coat over his shoulders. "It's windy here. Hurry up, I'm going to freeze to death."
His tone while hurrying her was too matter-of-fact. Gan Qing involuntarily moved faster and followed him out of Star Dreams with her head completely lost.
Meng Tianyi happened to poke his head out and look over. "Hey, Little Master Yu is here. Little Master Yu is a reliable person. With you here, I don't have to worry."
Yu Lanchuan nodded at him.
Gan Qing asked, "What happened?"
"Internal conflict in Beggars' Sect," Yu Lanchuan said briefly. "There are too many people with nothing better to do at No. 110 right now. You shouldn't go back yet, in case things get even messier once you show up."
Gan Qing, "..."
For some unknown reason, those obviously positive words would always be full of disdain when they were in Yu Lanchuan's mouth.
"I got a car. It's at the intersection, I can't drive it in. Let's go, we'll look for a place to eat." Yu Lanchuan used a purposefully "natural" tone. "I was busy the whole day, I'm still hungry."
Gan Qing said without thinking, "Sure, Boss Meng will take care of the food. What do you want to eat?"
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
He couldn't say "No" right in front of Boss Meng's face but he hadn't even drank a gulp of water after work before rushing here. And had he done that for the sake of eating at a roadside stall in a pitch-dark little alley?
For a second, he wanted to pry open Gan Qing's skull and see what kind of nonsense she had in there.
Luckily, Boss Meng quickly dissuaded her. "It's too busy tonight, there are no more seats in the shop. Don't join the excitement here, or do you want Little Master Yu to stand and eat in the back kitchen with you?"
Yu Lanchuan's eyelids lowered. His manner was saying: I am fine with anything but you should act accordingly.
Meng Tianyi said with a chuckle, "Little Master Yu is paying. If it wasn't because I have to take care of my shop, I would want to go along! There's a good free meal waiting for you, why aren't you hurrying? This isn't like you."
Yu Lanchuan had one foot on the steps at the entrance to Star Dreams. He scraped off the mud under his shoes, looking rather like he was forced to be there. He raised an eyebrow and looked at Gan Qing as though in puzzlement: Why is it that when I ask you out for a meal, you aren't like yourself?
For the sake of being like herself and not purposely acting differently, Gan Qing could only sigh and say, "Sure."
It was all because of that message from Zhang Meizhen causing trouble!
Meng Tianyi chuckled as he waved goodbye to the two of them. He turned around to go back into the shop and collided into his little disciple who was poking his head out.
"Why are you sneaking around?" Meng Tianyi smacked the little disciple's head. "Didn't I tell you to watch the stove?"
Those who came to be "disciples" at small shops like these were all kids from other parts of the country who came to Yanning to look for a living. They made their way in the world while working odd jobs, still in their teens, and had dropped out of school a long time ago. The journey they had gone on was longer than anyone else's, the jobs they had worked also more than anyone else's. The air of immaturity had yet to leave their faces, yet they were already starting to have a certain worldly shrewdness.
"Boss, who's that?" the little disciple asked.
"A friend," Boss Meng said. "What has it got to do with you?"
The little disciple said, "He looks like a rich guy."
"Yeah." Seeing a chance, Boss Meng lectured him. "Look at you, you didn't study hard when you were young so now that you've grown up, all you can do is cut things in the kitchen. When you look at other people who have studied hard, don't you regret it? In my opinion, you should take the chance while you're young to go to school…"
"Ai, Boss, why are you going on about this again? Of course, going to school is good. Everything is brought to you without you needing to lift a finger. If I'm made of the right stuff, would I need you to tell me this?" The little disciple waved him off, a trace of worries beyond his age appearing on his face that still had its baby fat. "Why did you let Gan'er-jiejie leave with him? Nothing good comes from being a gold-digger."
"Gold… what the hell, do you know how to speak properly? What gold-digger!"
The little disciple was rather worried. He felt that Meng Tianyi was like those money-minded old mothers of impoverished female leads in idol dramas who, despite their age, did not know how to conduct themselves and spent every day salivating in anticipation of their daughter baiting a rich son-in-law for them. Hence, he advised him earnestly, "When being in a relationship, both parties should have similar backgrounds. If the other person has money but you don't, will they treat you seriously? They will just play with you. Even if it works out, the other person wants to eat big lobsters but you only know how to cook mala crayfish, can the two of you get along? When more time has passed, when the relationship is no longer new and fresh, the other person will look down on you. My Gan'er-jiejie is so good, why should she go through that?"
"Hey! You're just a little brat, how dare you look down on mala cray-"
"Even little brats know that a person cannot always think of taking shortcuts." The little disciple put on a serious face and lectured the "old yet had no self-respect" Boss Meng with a serious tone. "The one who will suffer due to being at a disadvantage in a romantic relationship is not you!"
Meng Tianyi teased him. "Then, is it you? What kind of thoughts do you have about your Gan'er-jiejie? Even if you do, there's no use. You haven't reached the legal age for marriage yet."
The little disciple who had spoken so confidently just now turned red. He stammered for a while, then ran off.
Boss Meng looked at the little kid's flustered retreating figure and laughed for a while. Then, he could not laugh anymore. He turned his head back around and cast his eyes over at Star Dreams's quiet and lonely locked door. Then, his gaze leaped past those low buildings to land on the open and wide road as he tried to recall how the place had looked before the buildings that were previously there were demolished.
He no longer remembered it.
"Your Gan'er-jiejie..." Boss Meng seemed to be speaking to himself. "...has skin made of copper and bones of metal, and is ruthless and merciless; who could make her suffer? If she could be willing to fall to the ground and get a taste of the mortal realm, that would be wonderful, regardless of whether it is a sweet or a bitter taste. Even if she suffers one time, there's nothing bad about that. At least, it's better than living aimlessly and thoughtlessly."
As he spoke, he sighed. His hands folded behind his back, he slowly returned to the back kitchen.
It wasn't convenient to drive around in Mudpool Backlane, the car had to be controlled down to the centimeter. Gan Qing didn't know how to drive. She sat in the front passenger seat and kept glancing at the side mirror in fear and trepidation, afraid that it would scrape against the wall. When Yu Lanchuan drove out of the area, she finally heaved a sigh of relief and dared to speak to the driver. "What do you mean by the 'internal conflict in Beggars' Sect' you said just now? It can't be related to me, can it? If it is, I will-"
"Move out? What has an internal conflict got to do with outsiders? Even if there is, it's only an excuse." Yu Lanchuan steadily cut her off. "These few years, other than those hoodlum gangs, everyone kept to their paths and didn't have the energy to be particular about sects and whatnots. Only Beggars' Sect can still be considered to have a large standing. In the past, whenever we needed to find someone or follow someone, we always troubled Old Master Yang. They have many people, their might is strong, and their informants are deeply hidden. If you have people, you have power; if you have power, you have authority and you can change things. For so many years, Old Master Yang had suppressed them and didn't follow some of these people's views to expand and strengthen. There are probably some who have been dissatisfied for a while already."
"You can't say that. If someone has an excuse, that means the person has got something on you," Gan Qing said. "It's better to avoid unnecessary trouble."
"Since this is something you said yourself, I hope you can keep it in mind." Yu Lanchuan sighed. "You don't have a moustache, why do you carry so many razor blades with you? Don't you think it's inconvenient to take the subway?"
"It's… fine?" Gan Qing said. "I don't take the subway anyway. It's a bit expensive."
Yu Lanchuan rolled his eyes, then asked her. "Is it better now?"
"The injury on your shoulder."
"Oh, it wasn't anything serious anyway…"
"Next time, don't leave at night." Yu Lanchuan stared at the road ahead, his gaze unwavering as he said, "I will drop by after work and pick you up."
Gan Qing turned her head to look at him in surprise.
"I'm not worried about you, don't think too much," Yu Lanchuan said, his face expressionless. "You stay at No. 110. I just don't want to come home one day and hear that someone has again stabbed you…"
"Erm…" Gan Qing thought for a while, then asked cautiously, "So, for the sake of… supervising me, you purposely rented a car?"
"Who's doing that on purpose?" Yu Lanchuan scoffed. "The weather's been cold recently. I just don't want to walk home after wo-"
Before he could finish speaking, his phone suddenly rang. When he was driving, Yu Lanchuan's phone was connected to the car. He pressed "Accept" without thinking and heard a gentle female voice come out of the speakers. "Good evening, Mr. Yu. This is XXX Restaurant. This morning, you made a dinner reservation for two people. We have made the preparations. May I ask what time the two guests will be arriving?"
Yu Lanchuan, "..."
This restaurant might not be aware that it was giving itself a poor review in advance.
Yu Lanchuan said emotionlessly, "Initially, I had an appointment with a business partner to discuss some things this evening but the other person happened to be delayed by some other matter. This is just-"
Gan Qing didn't wait for him to finish speaking before nodding hastily. "Okay, I understand."
"-a work dinner."
Gan Qing went along politely, "It truly is my lucky day."
Halfway there, Yu Lanchuan started to have a faint feeling of regret. He suspected that he must have taken the wrong meds this morning and that was why he chose this type of restaurant. When they reached the place, he endured Gan Qing's increasingly strange gaze and wanted nothing more than to cancel his reservation immediately and drag her home to make instant noodles. Considering that Gan Qing's right arm was injured and that it wouldn't be convenient for her to use chopsticks, he had picked a place that used knives and forks.
This was a restaurant that specialised in western-style dishes. Inside, the sound of bagpipes was playing faintly and tiny booths filled the place as far as the eye can see.
The servers they hired might all have bat blood running through their veins. The surroundings were dark like a cinema hall and there was only a bit of light over each table. Under each light, there was even a narrow-mouthed vase with a rose inside.
Due to the fact that the environment was too quiet and tranquil, the diners naturally were more well-behaved, speaking in low voices. Looking in from the outside, every light illuminated a pair—a man and a woman; listening carefully, whispered conversations were everywhere.
Gan Qing, "..."
A work dinner…
Could it possibly be that Director Yu depended on his sex appeal to move up in the business world?
He was the alliance leader after all… this was quite an offence on public morals!
This considerate restaurant might be serving the food very slowly for the sake of dragging out everyone's date. Between every two courses, they left enough time for an episode of a television drama, lest there be one or two gluttons who were only concerned about eating and didn't spend any effort on paying attention to their lover.
Every course came on a plate scattered with rose petals, every drop of sauce could cause indigestion.
Gan Qing ate this meal feeling like she was sitting on pins and needles. When she finally endured to the end and stood up, she realised that her legs had gone numb. She had walked in on two legs but now, she limped her way out.
"I don't know if it's just me but I can't help feeling rather awkward," Gan Qing said.
Yu Lanchuan glanced at her gloomily. His eyes seemed to be saying that he wanted to silence her forever and exterminate this piece of dark history.
Gan Qing hastily pretended to zip her mouth shut.
She propped her head on her hand and fell silent for a while. All of a sudden, she was finally sensing a certain feeling… Someone had actually purposely rented a car to pick her up after work and also made a reservation at a restaurant in advance.
He was following the standard route and yet, when he was found out, he still pretended that nothing was happening.
...It was really a little too adorable.
While maintaining his posture of paying full attention to the road while driving, Yu Lanchuan bristled. "Why are you smiling?"
"I'm not," Gan Qing refuted immediately. "It's the reflection. You're mistaken."
She cleared her throat, then dug out her phone to check the time and said with feigned seriousness, "At this hour, those troublemakers should have left, right?"
Yu Lanchuan let out an indifferent yeah. After a while, he said, "He has been the sect leader for so many years, this small matter shouldn't be a problem…"
Before he could finish speaking, from behind them came the sound of a vehicle honking. Right on its heels was the blaring of an ambulance siren.
The drivers on both lanes naturally parted to make way. Yu Lanchuan's words were cut off.
The moment the ambulance passed by them, his heart suddenly fell with a thump.
The road in front of No. 110 was a single lane. Despite the hour, it was unexpectedly so congested that it could not be entered.
The car lights flashing unceasingly swept past the old scholar trees again and again. The dried branches shivered, as though in fright. The jumbled sound of voices could already be heard from the intersection.
Yu Lanchuan had just poked his head out when he was choked by a sudden devastating gust of northwest wind. He threw down a "I'll go have a look," wrapped his coat tightly around himself and got down from the car.
"Little Master Yu!" Before he could enter, someone called out to him. Yu Lanchuan turned his head back and saw that the laundry shop at the intersection had its door opened a crack. The shop owner, Boss Jiang, poked his head out and waved at Yu Lanchuan. Over here!"
Yu Lanchuan hesitated a while, then slipped into the laundry shop. The blast of warm air made him quiver. "Uncle Jiang, what's going on?"
He thought that there was just some disagreement within Beggars' Sect and that a few people had come to Sect Leader Yang's place to make a fuss. Looking at the state of things now, that didn't seem to be the case!
Boss Jiang looked behind Yu Lanchuan, then pulled the door shut firmly. "Little Master Yu, haven't you heard? It's that matter that's all abuzz lately… The police have been here quite a few times to look for Old Yang's granddaughter."
Yu Lanchuan didn't have so much free time to pay attention to society gossip. He only skimmed through the news notifications that popped up on his phone and knew that this was a "banquet" that was more offensive to public morals than usual. The girl who exposed it had even gone missing and Yu Yan's side had been busy looking for her during this period of time. "Ah, what about it?"
"Late afternoon yesterday, the police took her away again." Boss Jiang jutted his chin in the direction of No. 110 Courtyard. "She was only allowed to return early this morning… They're saying she's in trouble now, that she seems to be getting money from it."
Yu Lanchuan didn't understand. "Get what money? From where?"
"Ai, how can you not get it? From introducing girls to those rich men!" Boss Jiang was quite old and it was hard for him to speak of these matters. "Let me ask you, if we were in the old days, isn't this that thing? They are saying that there's even a recording online. I asked my grandson to look for it for me but he couldn't find it even after a day and said that it might have been deleted. But it was still there yesterday night and from what's being said, it sounds like there was indeed such a thing."
Yu Lanchuan frowned. "Didn't you say that she was allowed to return early this morning?"
"Perhaps the evidence is not sufficient. I don't know either, she might have to go back there in a couple of days," Boss Jiang said. Yan Hao happened to come over then with a glass of water. It made Boss Jiang recall the time he was brought to the police station in a Spiderman costume and there was a bad feeling in his heart again. "We old people won't beg and plead with all of you to be wildly successful. We just hope that you young people can live your lives honestly and steadily. Study well at school, work hard at your jobs… as for passing on martial art skills and all that, we have long since accepted how things are. If you like practicing it, then you can practise as you wish. If you don't like it, then forget it. But all of you have to conduct yourselves properly! What is this? Spending this kind of money, can you really feel happy in your heart?"
Yan Hao had once endured the pain of being in the center of gossip and slander. When all those flecks of flying spittle were done trampling over him, when they were bored of him, they turned around to look for their next target. It pained his heart to see others suffer as he had. On top of that, Yang Yifan had even found a job for him. Hence, he asked cautiously, "They're all rumours, they might not be true…"
"Then, why are the rumours not about other people? Why don't they talk about me? How can there be so many baseless claims!" Boss Jiang tsk-ed and said, "I've always said that that girl in Old Yang's family is too impudent! Now, she's in trouble, isn't she?"
Yan Hao didn't dare interject. Crestfallen, he stuck his hands into the ends of his sleeves. He went out to observe the situation at No. 110 Courtyard.
Yu Lanchuan didn't want to bother listening to these baseless rights or wrongs and asked directly, "But what does this have to do with Beggars' Sect? What about the ambulance that passed by just now?"
"Sigh, wasn't there a young lady who exposed them and then went missing? A while ago, Old Yang was quite concerned about this matter and asked his people to keep an eye out. He probably doesn't know how his granddaughter is involved in this matter," Boss Jiang said. "That missing girl has a family member that somehow knows a Nine Pouch Elder from Beggars' Sect—a distant relative or something like that. When that sect elder heard about this matter, he brought people over to demand an explanation from Old Yang… Ambulance? I don't know, hopefully it's not the person who came to look for the girl getting worked up and fainting."
"Distant relative?" Yu Lanchuan asked. "How distant?"
Boss Jiang said, "That's not the key point, who cares-"
"That is the key point." Yu Lanchuan raised a hand and cut him off. "You and I might be distant relatives, the kind that came from the same village 500 years ago. How can there be such a coincidence? The four Nine Pouch Elders of Beggars' Sect are second in power only to Old Sect Leader Yang. If someone in their family went missing, there should have been a huge uproar a long time ago. But instead of searching all over the place for the missing person, they come to look for the old sect leader and make a fuss? Furthermore, I live right upstairs but I didn't even know about the police taking someone away yesterday. The neighbours might gossip about it but would this be passed on so quickly to that whatever sect elder? Is this sect leader exceptionally well-informed or does he have 24-hour CCTV in the old sect leader's house?"
Boss Jiang sighed. He felt that Yu Lanchuan was still young. The things everyone had a tacit and silent understanding on, he just had to lay them all out plainly in the open.
Old Yang had withdrawn himself from worldly affairs. He was over ninety years old now and had gone through years of stormy hardship. It had been long since he had the heart to worry and fret over everything. But other people may not be willing to lay low with him. What kind of joke was Travellers' Sect? Wang Jiusheng's gang could rely on sheer power to make their mark and cause waves; so why the hell did the number one sect in the land have to stay inside the cracks of the city?
It was the twenty-first century now. Doing good deeds anonymously, wasn't that just something fools did?
But Sect Leader Yang just had to be so robust and in such good health. When he swung the Dog Beating Staff, there was not the least bit of hesitation. It didn't seem like he would be departing the mortal coil anytime soon. Below him, the Nine Pouch Elders waited in anticipation of their boss's death so that they could take his position but the boss just refused to die. Perhaps they could see that they might not outlast this old man and could no longer sit still, so they took this chance to display their prowess.
The banquet Wang Jiake had exposed included wealthy people, celebrities, transactions of the flesh and even prohibited drugs. Each and every one of those dazzling peacocks had fanned out their brilliant tails and exposed their asses, something everyone loved to revel in. Wang Jiake's disappearance also added a touch of drama and suspense to the whole matter. Everyone had their own opinions, and the debate raged on. Under these circumstances, anyone who had anything at all to do with that banquet were tarred with the same brush, much less Yang Yifan whose words sounded quite outrageous at first glance.
To those internet users who could spin ten thousand hidden truths from a single line, this was already conclusive evidence and the only thing lacking was the judgement from a court of law.
The sudden onset of the night wind shook the signboard of the laundry shop until it was creaking. It was the wailing of ghosts, the howling of wolves.
A great wind had risen. The flying sand and the tumbling stones could borrow its force; all they had to do was keep still and lay quietly in wait.
After hearing his words, Yu Lanchuan nodded at Boss Jiang and stood up to go.
"Wait a while, Little Master Yu. Don't go over. You're usually not back from work yet at this time anyway."
It was just past nine p.m. now. In most circumstances, Yu Lanchuan would indeed not be back from work yet but during this period of time when the Spring Festival holiday was just over, the work for the next year had yet to start rolling. It wasn't very busy at the office.
Yu Lanchuan paused. "But today, I'm already back from work."
Boss Jiang seemed to fear that the walls had ears and kept his voice low as he spoke to Yu Lanchuan. "Don't go over. Listen to me. Right now, the four Nine Pouch Elders of Beggars' Sect are all here. They're all talking over each other, all of them obsessed with arguing. If you don't appear, they can't get anything on you. But once you go over, you will have to greet them. What are you going to say?"
Yu Lanchuan was not dense and obtuse like that foolish child Yan Hao, of course he understood what Boss Jiang was saying. Everyone addressed him deferentially as "Little Master Yu" or "Little Alliance Leader" out of respect for his granduncle, Yu Huaide. It was not because Yu Lanchuan himself had anything worth their esteem.
How much esteem could they have for someone who worked extra hours like a dog, who relied on his apartment to be elected to the position?
When there was nothing wrong, everyone was polite and courteous. They let him organise the Martial Arts General Assembly, brought the younger generation along for arranged dating, and found some minor issues for him to handle so that he could show off a little what it meant to be the alliance leader. By the time he had gone on in this muddled and confused state for another ten, twenty years, when he was a familiar face to people from all walks of life and could find someone to speak to no matter where he went, this "alliance leader" would finally be considered to have the real skills and experience to back up the title.
When something serious happened, which one of these old troublemakers would listen to an upstart like him?
Beggars' Sect's matters were none of his business, he was busy with studies or work, he didn't understand the inner workings, he wasn't present at the scene—all these were excusable. However, if he did not understand how little weight he carried and interfered rashly, then he would be announcing to the world just how valuable this "alliance leader" was.
"Uncle Jiang won't say empty nice words to you. Since ancient times, which among those acts of chivalry wasn't something that took no effort to do?"
Yu Lanchuan's expression wavered for a bit. Slowly, he sat back down.
Right at that moment, the laundry shop's main door was slammed open. Yan Hao had slipped out earlier and now, he was barging right in. "The ambulance took Sect Leader Yang away!"
"What?" Boss Jiang said in shock.
"It's Old Sect Leader Yang! Maybe he was angry, they said that he was speaking halfway when he suddenly clutched his chest and fell over… Ai, Little Master Yu?" Yan Hao's words were rather scrambled.
Yu Lanchuan stood up and left right away.
Gan Qing had been playing with her phone in the car when the door on the other side opened with a swoosh. Yu Lanchuan said, "Help me find a place and park the car. I'm going over to have a look."
Don't know how to drive!
However, Yu Lanchuan did not wait for her to speak. He had rushed off and was already no longer in sight.
Gan Qing sat in this "metal box" for a while, then used her phone to look up which of the two pedals was the brake and which one the accelerator. In the end, she was still as confused as ever. So she pulled up the hood on her down jacket and got down from the car, shivering as she walked one circle around the car. She tried pushing the car from the back—this outrageous Yu Lanchuan had even pulled the handbrake before he left. The car did not move.
A middle-aged man happened to walk out of a small lane. He stood in the wind, smoking and watching her struggle in amusement. "Young lady, what did you buy to get your driving license as a free gift? Stop pushing, where do you want to park the car? I'll get a few people to help you push it over."
Gan Qing spread her hands helplessly. "I haven't had the chance to put in the order for my driving license yet. That friend of mine didn't finish listening to what I said."
The middle-aged man stubbed out his cigarette and walked over. "If you trust me, I can help you park the car."
Gan Qing quickly thanked him.
"Fought with your boyfriend? Did he abandon a girl together with the car at the roadside just because of a quarrel?" The middle-aged man got the car moving with ease of practise. "Ai, someone as bad-tempered as this can get a girlfriend, he must look like a celebrity."
Gan Qing said, "...No, we're just ordinary friends."
The middle-aged man laughed out loud, not believing her. Humming a tune, he found a public parking spot and drove the car into it.
Gan Qing's eyes swept silently across his shoulder. This man was dressed respectably but on his shoulder, his shirt had an out-of-place patch sewn on that even seemed quite fashionable at a glance. Since ancient times, Beggars' Sect differentiated the members by "dirty clothing section" and "clean clothing section." It was said that according to history, both sides had even battled a few times. Later on, after a few rounds of chaos, they became one family. By now, they no longer differentiated the members in this way because even though most of the vagrants and beggars on the streets were still under Beggars' Sect, most of the Beggars' Sect members were no longer beggars. They consisted of people from all trades and professions. It was only when there were sect-related matters going on that they would come wearing clothes with patches to indicate their identity.
Gan Qing looked up from under the hood of her down jacket and asked, "Dage, you look like you're in a good mood. Did something good happen?"
"You can tell?" the middle-aged man said smilingly. "Actually, it's nothing. It's just that there's a great change at the place where I 'work.' In the past, I was just in a half-dead state but in the future, I might be like a salted fish getting a new lease of life. All right, I'll stop the car here. Keep the key well… Do you know how to take out the key?"
Gan Qing waited obediently for him to pull out the key and teach her where to press to lock the car. She said very sweetly, "Then, let me wish you a year of fortune and wealth as a belated New Year greeting."
Her words were very pleasing to the ear. The middle-aged man waved at her and went into a small eatery nearby.
A few people similarly well-dressed with patches on their clothes were waiting for him. "What were you doing? Why were you so slow? How are things?"
"I met a clumsy girl on the way and helped her park her car." The middle-aged man gave out cigarettes to his companions. Subconsciously, he cast his gaze far and realised that the young lady wearing a grey down jacket was nowhere to be seen now.
She has probably gone home, he thought. He wasn't bothered, he just felt that it was a bit of a shame. That girl looked like she was afraid of the cold, she had shrank back into her hood the whole time and even her hands had not been exposed. He had not seen her face clearly but from what he could see of her profile, he felt that she must be a pretty lady.
"I saw a stretcher there, it must be either a heart attack or a stroke. Ai, at his age, this is a sin," the middle-aged man said.
A Beggars' Sect member beside him said, "Old Sect Leader's health is failing at his old age. It's time for him to take a rest… What about the Dog Beating Staff? If Old Sect Leader retires, it's not appropriate for the Dog Beating Staff to be kept in the Yang family home. Don't let that unfilial granddaughter of his take it out and sell it off."
"It's a little too early to speak of this. It's not the right time." The middle-aged man waved him off. "If you ask me, we should at least wait for his emergency treatment to be over, shouldn't we? Elder Tian is still hanging around there, unwilling to let things go. His manners are deplorable. Just now, Elder Zhao secretly sent word. Since there is someone breaking through the enemy lines for us, we will let our brothers disperse for now. As for us… we'll wait and see."
Those few people took their leave of one another and filed out of the little eatery.
The middle-aged man was the last one. He paid the bill, then came out and looked around him. Seeing that there was no one around, he slowly slipped into a small alley and walked towards a concealed little house.
He didn't notice that not far behind him, someone was quietly tailing him like a shadow.